Should It Matter If Our Workplace Managers Are Leaders Too?

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Apr 15, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

There’s an entire industry built around training managers to be great leaders, and why not? It makes sense that the person tasked with managing a team should possess some leadership skills.

But, we also know that not every manager is suited to be a great leader. In fact, most managers are downright unsatisfied.

When I think of great leaders, I think of people like John F. Kennedy, Alexander the Great, and Gandhi those once-in-a-lifetime people whose impressions on history are indelible.

Given that, I really don’t think of leaders as a manager in an office setting.

Defining great leadership

But that’s not such a terrible thing. It got me thinking: shouldn’t management skills, not leadership skills, be the top training priority in management? The Wall Street Journal’s official glossary offers distinctions between the two terms:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.

And, it goes on like that. Of course, that’s all well and good, except that success consists only the things you can measure and you can’t really measure things like innovation, originality, and mentorship capacity. These are subjective standards, like beauty.

When you try to compare management to leadership it inevitably leads to a lot of hair-splitting. Claiming that the two terms are one in the same is equally dubious – management is measurable; leadership is not.

I’m not arguing that leadership isn’t real, only that it’s a quality, not a skill. It’s not easily transmitted from one person to the other.

To lead or manage

So why pretend that every good manager must be a great leader? It’s muddling the true role of managers in business.

The managers in any organization act as a clutch, moving gears and shifting things so the wheels of labor and executives can swing freely. We all know what that takes: some administration experience, a willingness to do maintenance, training on tools, a positive attitude, and a modicum of people skills.

So-called “great leaders” might be over-qualified.

I’m not just having fun with semantics either, because there’s risk involved here. Filling managers’ heads with thoughts of being great leaders can ironically bring out their worst qualities.

Managers who are under the impression that they have a leadership mandate or must become the next Jack Welch tend to overestimate their skills and are less likely to ask for help, leading to disastrous results.

What really makes a great leader?

Management analyst and speaker Henry Mintzberg did a follow-up study on 19 Harvard MBA graduates who in 1990 were dubbed “superstars” who had made it to the top as CEOs and owners of respected businesses. These were, by all accounts, the brightest leaders of the day from the most prestigious Ivy League business school.

So how did they do? Mintzberg reports:

In a word, badly. A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that the company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another four we found to be questionable at least. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically.”

To be fair, this study was not scientific in any way. Still, one can’t help but wonder if we are teaching the right things about what makes a good leader, and whether the right people are being considered for those positions.

Leading by example

At the end of the day, your frontline employees aren’t looking for a “great leader” who will innovate and challenge them every day. They’re looking for a great example, a plain old normal person they can relate to, who understands them on a human level, and most important, someone who has done their homework and knows what they’re doing, and exhibits empathy.

They want a great manager.

Leaders are great at starting the journey, but good management gets everyone to the destination happy and on time.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.