Effective leaders and managers both positively impact the leadership process. They are both critical for long-term superior organizational performance. Unfortunately, the internet and social media have bombarded us with GIFs, memes, articles, and TED talks that glorify leaders at the expense of managers.

The pendulum of popularity has swung dramatically from valuing managers to valuing leaders. And while the importance and value of leaders should continue to be highlighted, it shouldn’t continue in a manner that devalues and marginalizes managers. Imagine an organization with no managers? With no one to organize, plan, evaluate, and assess? Or to control systems, processes, and procedures? Nothing would ever get accomplished, and organizational chaos would ensue.

This is where we are heading if distinctions between leaders and managers keep getting framed using the word ‘versus’, as in leaders versus managers. If framed as such, the implicit message is that leaders are better than managers, that leaders are amazing and that managers are lumps. This characterization is inaccurate, misleading, and counterproductive. An organization with all leaders and no managers is not ideal.

I am not sure why the pendulum swung so dramatically from valuing managers to valuing leaders. Perhaps managers and the management industry became so focused on efficiencies and effectiveness, on managing things, that they lost sight of people and relationships. And as a result, organizations became dull, uninspiring bureaucracies with no meaningful purpose. Therefore, inspiring, motivational, and relational leaders emerged as the solution, while managers became the cause. This would help explain the meteoric rise of the billion-dollar leadership industry.

But like anything else, balance is the key. A clear distinction does exist between leaders and managers, but the leadership industry peddles this distinction in such a way to glorify leaders at the expense of managers. And this is problematic and needs to stop. Look at one of the most popular ‘leaders versus managers’ lists cited from Bernard Bass’ Handbook of Leadership:

  • Leaders have a relationship orientation versus managers who have a task orientation;
  • Leaders are transformational versus managers who are transactional;
  • Leaders are innovative versus managers who maintain the status quo;
  • Leaders motivate versus managers who organize;
  • Leaders inspire and empower versus managers who assess and control; and
  • Leaders do the right things versus managers who do things right.

Lists such as this that frame the discussion using the word ‘versus’ send a counterproductive and damaging implicit message: leaders are better than managers. We must stop perpetuating this damning narrative.

Leaders and managers are both valuable and are both necessary for organizational success. Everything included in Bass’ list is important. People in organizations should lead and manage, striving to be effective as leaders and managers.  In the process of managing things and completing tasks, managers should also prioritize leading people. Both are valuable. John Gardner, who wrote the seminal and often-cited book On Leadership, stressed the importance of leader-managers. Not leaders. Not managers. But leader-managers.

We need to continue to discuss the distinctions between leaders and managers. The differences, if framed correctly, can help us to grow and develop. The discussion will help us assess our strengths and weaknesses in both areas, challenging us to improve where needed. But when we frame the discussion using ‘versus’, we are doing ourselves and our organizations a disservice.  We need both leaders and managers, preferably leader-managers, to positively impact the leadership process. Let’s recalibrate and value both leading and managing.

(Adapted from original article published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 10-02-18)