ThinkstockPhotos-459893981The terms leader and manager often get used interchangeably. In reality, they reflect distinctly different management styles. Leaders tend to be more focused on developing and executing a strategic vision. They motivate those around them to embrace that vision. In short, leaders often drive disruptive change with the long-term goal of inspiring those around them to innovate improvements to the organization. Comparatively, managers tend to be more focused at a tactical level. Managers plan, organize, direct and control repeatable processes. Their goal is stability. They typically only drive change when the metrics they manage indicate a need for improvement.

Which of these styles is best? The answer is: it depends.
One of the best explanations I’ve heard was provided by a CEO in a discussion of the best management style for program managers in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry. He said he liked program managers to be leaders when they were in charge of an account that was large enough to require dedicated production lines. If the account shared a line with programs managed by other managers, he preferred a managerial or tactical focus. His reasoning was that leaders sharing a line often developed conflicts related to resource sharing, whereas managers were more likely to work together. Conversely, having a leader on a large account ensured that a strategic vision for growth was present and the leader would be a strong champion for the account to identify and obtain the required resources.
One reason the terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably is because astute executives understand the value of varying management style by situation. This is particularly true early in one’s management career, where the position routinely requires a manager focus rather than a leader. Determining which style is most appropriate (manager or leader) is one of the most difficult decisions an up-and-coming professional will make.  What factors determine your situational style? Here are few questions to consider:

  • Are you new to the organization?
  • Are you in charge of a unique function or project?
  • Are you leading a team or are you a member of a team?

New to the Organization

It is not unusual for employees who are just starting their management careers to want to make a big splash by identifying everything that is wrong with a current process and offering solutions to fix it. The problem with this approach is that without relevant experience and an understanding of the business reasons for the process, it can be easy to criticize a process that isn’t broken. In this situation, it is better to manage than to lead.  Evaluate process metrics against organizational objectives. Process metrics can be analyzed once the experience to understand the issues has can been acquired. Are organizational objectives being achieved? If so, continue to manage the process. If not, determine what changes could improve the process, how much the changes would cost in time and resources, and present the findings to superiors. 

In Charge of a Unique Function or Project

When your role involves managing a function or a project that is unique to the organization, there is often an opportunity to be a leader. For example, early in my career I was put in charge of marketing in a manufacturing services company that didn’t have a formal marketing team. There was no process in place to manage, so I used my leadership skills. I researched the issues, put together the company’s first integrated marketing plan and successfully sold the concept to the company’s president. Once the plan was launched, I tracked performance metrics and continued to fine-tune and improve the process. I developed a reputation for being a leader in driving successful marketing efforts, which paved the way for a successful 20-year career.  In this scenario, starting the assignment as a leader made sense.

Leading a Team or a Team Member

If you are selected to lead a team, tapping the visionary and motivational aspects of leadership can be critical to the team’s success. Keep in mind that great leaders don’t dictate their vision; instead, they inspire others to build upon it. In contrast, if you are a member of a team, focusing on tactics can be the best way to engage with the team. If there is a vacuum in leadership relative to achieving the defined goal, there may be opportunities to step up and lead. However, as with the “new to the organization” scenario, focus on understanding the playing field and objectives before assuming a leadership position. Shifting between manager and leader styles requires judgment and expertise. Carefully consider which characteristics are best for each situation before deciding on the situational style.