What’s the difference between a manager and a leader?

So, what is the difference between management and leadership? Penny Ferguson, Founder of The Living Leader, explains.

Yesterday morning I had the privilege of being on a webinar with Joe and Catherine talking about personal leadership and a definition that I think could do with maybe a little more explanation, even though is a much bigger subject.

So, what is the difference between management and leadership?

Outstanding managers drive people to perform at the highest level they are capable of. It is very much about control.

Outstanding leaders inspire them to do it for themselves, and it is more about freedom.

Please recognise the first word of these sentences is the word ‘outstanding’.  Both of these styles can be very successful – they are just different.  The knack is being aware of which is appropriate to use and when.

Leadership throughout life

My most important leadership role in my life is that of a parent and I really didn’t understand anything about leadership until my children had grown up.

With what I now know, there is no question in my mind that I managed all of my six children when they were growing up and I bitterly regret not learning all of this much sooner.

I love then more than anything else in my world and I had a history of making some pretty stupid mistakes in my life which I never wanted them to make.

I did my best to sort out all of their problems, gave advice all the time, pointed out where there were risks and how to avoid them, told them what to do, when to do it and how to do it, and generally did everything possible for them, even making their beds!

Through loving them so much I was, in fact, disempowering them, educating them how not to think for themselves, I was inadvertently telling them they could not do anything without me plus they could never be better than I was yesterday. Big oops!

Let’s recognise where we are right now: ‘world unusual’. 

We are probably in a position at work where we are having to make painful decisions, that we have no wish to make, and it’s going to affect people’s lives, and we care so much for each of these individuals.

Our temptation is to leap into telling people what to do, how to do it, try to convince them that all will be fine and take on all the responsibility for keeping them safe and motivated.  All feelings to be applauded.

However, in these examples, how are we communicating?

It is all ‘let me tell you what I think…’, I’ve got a great suggestion…’ , ‘I think you’ve got it wrong…’.

This language is entirely management and we are in control.  All my experience, with evidence coming out of my ears, is that this style of communicating is very typical for most of us and is almost entirely because we care and desperately want to help.  For me, learning this at a late age, it was a serious shock to my system!

If you want to step into leadership then our communication style needs to shift considerably. Some examples could be:

  • So what do you think?
  • I love that idea that you have just had
  • If you knew there is one thing you could do today to support your team what would it be?
  • If you had 50% more confidence what would you do?
  • If I wasn’t here what might you do?

This is where all the focus is on helping the individual, or the team, think for themselves.  It is about ‘you’ not ‘I’.  It is them taking responsibility for how they choose to think and behave, it is empowering not disempowering and, above all, can inspire individuals to own more and more of their potential.

This is a critical aspect of leadership and the most exciting, amazing and ongoing journey of my life.  It is giving every person the biggest gift you can give anyone, the opportunity to make their own choices and take responsibility for their own life.

So, this makes it pretty clear that you cannot look at management or leadership without looking at how you communicate – these are so closely linked together that it is inseparable and one of three key components of becoming a great leader.

How you choose to think and understanding responsibility at a much more profound level are the other two. A subject for another day!