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What is the Difference Between Leading and Managing?

What is the difference between leading a team or managing employees? Here, Ron and Michelle discuss how a leader differs from a manager in the workplace.

Maybe you have moved into a project management role after working mostly on your own. You were confident with your skills and ability to produce. But now you are being asked to coordinate and delegate. You aren't so sure you know what you're doing now. How do you make sure everyone is producing the results you need without having to keep track of every single thing that happens? It seems so much easier to just do it all yourself. But you don't have the capacity even if you know how to do everything. 

If you are responsible for a team of people, are you leading them or managing them? Even if your actual title has "manager" in it, do others see you as a leader at your company? Do you want to go beyond supervising others and begin to lead? How would your workplace shift if you started to lead others? Do you feel like you notice when others have something to contribute? How can you support their ideas? 

During her 30-year career, Michelle held executive level roles in Technology, Human Resources, and Corporate Entrepreneurship. She's known for discovering the amazing hidden talents in her team and mentored more than 25 successful business leaders. 

In his career, Ron Macklin went on to lead teams that set nine world records and won dozens of customer satisfaction awards. At Siemens, for example, Ron led a support division with 350 employees that worked over 5 million hours without a lost-time injury and was voted “the best place to work in Houston” by the Houston Business Journal. Twice Ron has created a growth culture responsible for increasing profits by $20 million, and has led seven different groups from worst- to best-in-class. 

In this article, Michelle and Ron work through the distinctions between leading and managing and trusting your team, so you can begin to show up as a leader at work - and in the world.

How is management different than leadership?

Michelle: What is the difference between leadership and management? Where does management fit into leadership? Some leaders also have management responsibilities. How do they separate those?

Ron: So first, there's leadership, and then there's management, and they are different roles. It's a different orientation, and you can be a manager and a leader, and you could be a leader and a manager, or you can be a leader, and not a manager or a manager and not leader.

Management has an organizational distinction. It means I can hire somebody. I can fire somebody. I can give them a performance review. I can give them a raise. I can demote them. I can give them assignments. I can move them to a different job. I can make requests for them to do things. There's certain things I'm given authority to do by the company. So managing is supervising and doing these things.

Leadership is creating a story of the future that is so seductive and so powerful that people want to follow. This is completely different than managing. 

It's a social distinction. This means there's no hiring. There's no firing. There's none of those other operational activities. It's just simply creating such a powerful story that people want to follow you.

Some of the fundamental parts of that are you are creating a picture of the future that takes care of a big group of people - and that can be the company. A company is just a a group of people. So the story a leader is creating has to take care of the group of people. And it also has to take care of the individual. The individual can contribute to the bigger group, and the individual wins, and the group wins. And they both can live a good life. 

Michelle: So let me try something here. Management can be looked at as a set of operational responsibilities. You hire, you fire, you get feedback, you give people raises. But leadership means that you have a story where people want to follow you because it's something that takes care of them and the company. 

So can a leader reduce this kind of management? What I mean by this is if employees are happy, they understand what they need to do, would this reduce managerial tasks?

Ron: My experience is when you become competent at crafting stories that align with what an individual wants in life and takes care of the group, then a manager's concerns go down dramatically.

There's a space where you’re not having to hire because you're not losing people (unless you're growing, and then you're hiring). But then you're in a place where you can lead people to do the hiring. So you're not hiring. And then there's a space where you don't need to do terminations. You don't need to do performance reviews or improvement plans because everybody can see what they need to get done. And then you're really not needed.

One of my favorite quotes about this is from a management leadership training video. And it basically said, "the greatest compliment a leader can be told is that they are no longer needed.”

This means the leader has enabled the organization to operate without them. This in turn enables a dignified workforce to really create something that's amazing, low cost, powerful, and fun.

Do you have to be a manager to lead others?

Michelle: People usually advance in their career to become managers and managers tend to lead others. But do you have to be a manager to lead others? 

Do you have to be in management to be a leader? No, actually. There are "roving leaders," people who are out on the floor who other people would follow. There are many powerful individuals who don't hold a management role or a supervisor role. But they create something that other people want to follow - either a story, or an idea or a way of being, or a way to do something. It might even show up as they go one break and others drop what they're doing and follow them to take a break. And those roving leaders are very powerful to notice. But also, if you work in a role where it's part of your job to lead others, it's powerful to be able to notice these roving leaders and appreciate them because they are leading others.

It's a natural phenomenon for humans to follow other humans, which means somebody is leading. The original act that happens is somebody follows somebody else which makes the other person the leader. That's just natural. It happens with humans in the world all the time.

And when you believe that there are natural, roving leaders out there, you put yourself in a space where you're looking for them. And when I find a natural leader I like to bring them into where we're going and what we're doing, so that they can see the power of what we're creating - and actually add to it.

The roving leaders are going to know what's happening out in the business. They are right in the midst of it, and they're connected. They understand all the moods, the gossip, the trends - everything that everybody complains about or dreams about or talks about. So if you've been given a role where now you have to start leading teams, look for the people out in the trenches who others are already following. And acknowledge them. And then work with them to see how things can be better.

Trusting Your Team in the Workplace

Michelle: This reminds me of a story. I was in technology, and we were automating an assembly line which had these little bottles that came across them. If the label wasn't evenly placed on the bottle, the technology we were using would use a little puff of air and blow it off the assembly line.

We thought we could program the computers to do better than people could. But we didn't know anything about assembly lines. We thought we did, and we got out there, and the first thing we learned was that the air that comes out is at 90 Psi. This means it essentially shot that bottle so far that it dented the door that it hit. I'll just put it that way.

So that was our first attempt. We have no idea what we're doing. After we got off the floor, we hit the emergency button because we were messing things up and costing the company tons of money. But then we thought maybe we should ask people that are on the line what they think.

Somebody stepped up and said, "Let me tell you how you can do this better." The guy was amazing. He really knew how to do it, and what we ended up doing was putting more manual procedures in place for the people to do even a better job. We certainly made it work pretty well. Humans still turned out to be better than computers in this particular one. 

Ron: When you found this person, Michelle, when you asked them what could be done differently, they had an answer. They had something to contribute. I believe people want to contribute to something that's better than them, and then leadership or management get in the way. So my question to you, Michelle, but also to everyone is, how many people are out there in your organizations right now that know a better way, a faster way, a safer way, a higher quality way of doing something, but they don't feel that they have the space to contribute? They don't feel included in the process. How many people out there have something to contribute?

Here's one of the things I learned pretty early in my career. I was working with mechanics that have been doing this stuff their whole life. In fact, some of them have been like second and third generation mechanics, right? They know what they're doing. I'd go out and they'd say, "what do you want me to do, boss?" And I'd say, "Well, we need something to look like this in the end. What do you think the best way to do that is?"

They would look at me with this puzzled look on their face. And they would say, "I'm here neck down." And I would say, "Neck down. What do you mean, neck down?"

"You tell me what to do, and then I do it."

Ron: What came forward for me that moment is that's the culture that has been put in their space, their entire life. They knew a better way. And every time they tried to share it, they got shut down. So I would tell them, "I hired everything. I get you from neck up too." And you could see the fear. The scared person (we all have one) was coming out. Because now they're going to be responsible. And it was petrifying to them. But all along I was telling them, "I trust you. You know what to do. Just share with me what you're doing so if anyone asks, I can tell them I said yes to it."

They look at me like "you'll take the blame if something goes wrong?" Absolutely I would. And over time, we built this trust where I could just say "this is what I need done." And what I found was, they had faster, higher quality, lower risk at safety ideas than I could ever come up with. 

How do you show up as a leader?

If you are stepping into a role where you will be leading others, it might feel intimidating to get started. But everyone is scared. Everyone who has taken on a new role, especially a leadership role, is scared to mess up. But we all mess up right? Mistakes will happen, but it's a great learning experience.

What is showing up for you about management and leadership? Do you notice a difference? Do you feel like you’re able to lead others? Do you know how you want to show up as a leader?

If this article helped you better understand how you can be a leader at work, you might be interested in our executive coaching programs or leadership training. Our executive coaches are leaders in their fields and have transformed companies through their visionary leadership styles. To learn more about how to work with us, you can Schedule A Consultation.

If you would like to listen to Michelle and Ron’s full conversation about leadership, you can find it here.