105: [Ask Halelly] “Leader or manager – what’s the difference?” on the TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

ep105 Ask Halelly leader vs manager whats the difference TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

Is there a difference between being a leader and being a manager? Is one better than the other? Does one beget or require the other? Should we even be asking these questions??

Here’s another Ask Halelly episode of the TalentGrow Show, where I answer a question from a listener, a learner in one of my corporate workshops, a member of the audience at one of my conference speaking events, or a member of the media.

This week’s question came from a reporter who interviewed me for a Fast Company article about this very issue: What's the difference between being a leader and being a manager. My answer: Yeah, there is a difference. But, STOP SPLITTING HAIRS about it already! I explain why I love to hate this question and wish it would go away already.

Plus, I share about a couple of exchanges I had about this on Twitter – were they favorable? Take a listen, weigh in with your own opinion, and share with others!


Would you like to submit a question for a future “Ask Halelly” episode? You can use the voice messaging widget right here on the website and then I can even play your audio (with your permission, of course) on the episode! Or you can send me an email, or a ‘contact us’ form on this site, or a comment-based question, or a tweet…. You get the picture. Anyway you like it, I would love to hear your question!


About Halelly Azulay

Have we met? I'm Halelly Azulay. I'm an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in leadership, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. I am the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. My books, workshops and retreats build on my 20+ years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.

I am the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company focused on developing leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.

People hire me to speak at conferences and meetings and to facilitate leadership workshops, but what I love most is to help fast growing organizations create a leadership development strategy and approach.

I'm a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. I was described as a “Leadership Development Guru” by TD Magazine. I blog, publish a leadership podcast (um, hello?!), and have a popular free weekly subscription newsletter – so you should definitely sign up at www.tinyurl.com/talentgrow.


Episode 105 Leader Vs. Manager

Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Welcome back TalentGrowers. As you know, every couple of weeks I release a solo episode in addition to all of the wonderful interviews that we’ve been having, and this is another episode that is under the brand “Ask Halelly,” where I answer a question from either a member of my audience at one of my workshops or speaking at conferences or a member of the media or of course a listener like you. This week I have a question that was actually posed to me by all of the categories, pretty much. It is a question that pops up a lot and I’ll tell you the truth – I almost wish I didn’t get this question anymore. Let’s dig into it.

The question came in just recently from a reporter from Fast Company magazine, and she wanted to know what is the difference between being a manger and being a leader? It’s funny because just a few weeks before that, I had an interesting little interaction on Twitter with someone who was sharing my content, very kindly, but he made an interesting little comment. He was sharing one of the memes that I created with a quote from my interview with Dr. Edwin Locke, which was episode 95 of the TalentGrow Show, and I quoted him and I said, “If you give people irrational goals, you’ll find that they’re going to cheat, quit or both.” That was the quote from Dr. Locke. Of course I always say that my podcast is a leadership development podcast, or a leadership podcast, and a lot of times when a hashtag is involved I definitely include the hashtag leadership.

This guy – his name was Jason – wanted to pick issues with my using the leadership tag. When he retweeted he said, “Not #leadership, but a great call to arms for every manager, director and CEO out there.” Of course I said thank you for sharing and I do appreciate it, and out of curiosity, why is it not leadership? Talking about goals? He said, well, the popular confusion is that leadership is defined by a role or a title within an organization when it’s better defined as the relationship between two parties, regardless of title. A person can practice leadership but not be leadership, so to speak. I told him yeah, I completely agree. Leadership and management are not the same, and one does not beget the other. Also I agree that a leader does not necessity or imply also being a leader. But I do think that to be an effective manager you should be a leader. You don’t need to be both a leader and a manager, but if you’re a manager, you need to be both. Therefore, in my focus on supporting those in organizational leadership roles, I find that the constant focus on splitting these two concepts is artificial and unhelpful. For managers to really bridge the gap, they should focus on adding leadership skills, which is where I come in to support. I also agree that leaders develop others, so wouldn’t goal setting be a critical part of your leadership skillset?

Ironic that the call came in from Fast Company about this very topic, and immediately I told her, actually, I do think that they are two different things but that we should no longer spilt them and that it’s not helpful. Kind of the same thing I told Jason. But when we had the conversation, I said this to her in an email, and when we had the conversation, the interview, I said it again. I don’t think that you should split them. Let me say a little more about that. Think about it – in order to be a leader, you don’t have to be a manager. But to be a manager you have to be also a leader. This is my opinion. This is what I believe. If you’re just a leader but not currently a manager, then if you aspire to encompass leadership skills into your skillset, and some management skills get in there, okay. Nothing will happen. It won’t be a problem. So splitting them won’t be necessary for that person. And if you’re a manager, since by definition according to my belief you also should be a leader, then separating the skills that you’re acquiring and building and developing based on whether they’re management or leadership, kind of tagging them as such, is not helpful. What’s the purpose? Just add them, take them on. You need both.

The separation is just an unnecessary overlay of additional language and terms and labels that I don’t think is going to get anybody further in their development. I don’t think it’s necessary to continue to distinguish.

It’s interesting because then after my article came out on Fast Company, somebody else that I don’t know shared the article and said – his name is John Buck, @WordUpBuck on Twitter – and he said, “This Fast Company article featuring Halelly Azulay only does what dozens of others have done. It positions leadership versus management question as an either/or proposition when in reality it’s a yes/and proposition. STOP IT.” I told him, I agree. The funny thing is, I said so when I talked to the reporter, but this didn’t get printed, and he said, hmm, I’m glad you agree. I wonder why it didn’t get printed. I don’t know. I have a sense though, that if the reporter was setting out to write an article about what’s the difference, then saying there is no difference and that it’s not helpful to separate them was probably not aligned with the intent of the article. This is just an assumption that I’m making. I don’t actually know. It’s interesting that my distinction rebuke did not get printed.

So what is the difference? Let’s talk about that. It’s almost like the elephant in the room, we haven’t talked about it. A leader looks forward and looks outward and inspires and motivates and communicates with people. A leader sets the tone and the vision for the organization, thinks about the long-term, thinks about the competitive environment and the future and inspires people to follow that vision. Whereas, a manager is focused more on managing the day-to-day work to actually help execute on that vision. A manager’s focus is more on managing tasks and managing the output of people and the work that gets done, whereas a leader is focused more on setting direction and thinking in big picture. And the reason I don’t think that it’s necessary to separate them anymore is because most managers in today’s world don’t have the luxury of separating them. Even people who are leaders in organizations like the higher up the echelon you go, the more leadership you have to take on, and the less management you have to take on. But you still do both. It is very rare to find someone who is in a leadership position who doesn’t also have management responsibilities.

So, in today’s world of the knowledge worker, and definitely into the future, this distinction is unnecessary because managers should be leaders and they do both management and leadership. Leaders in organizations, although they can be kind of leaders without titles, the leaders with titles also have management responsibilities. The distinction is not that helpful.

I went into the literature to get some additional wisdom beyond my own opinion that I’ve developed over years of studying and practicing in the realm of leadership development, and funny enough I landed into a book by Dr. Edwin Locke, that was part of the beginning of this story. He was also on episode 95. He is one of the foremost experts on leadership. He is one of the co-originators of goal-setting theory and he says in a book called The Essence of Leadership, published in 1999, written by Dr. Locke and colleagues, there’s a section that says leadership versus management, and I quote, “Despite an ongoing dispute among writers on leadership over whether there is a valid distinction between leadership and management, we believe that the distinction is not only valid and important but also very simple. The key function of a leader is also to establish the basic vision, purpose, mission, overarching goal or agenda, of the organization. The leader specifies the end, as well as the overarching strategy for teaching it.” And this, they say, comes from the work of John Kotter. “The key function of a manager is to implement the vision. The manager and the subordinates act in ways that constitute the means to achieving the stated end.” Then they continue, “In reality as John Gardener has noted, this distinction often gets blurred. This is not because the distinction is invalid, but because in practice, the roles of leader and manager have no clear line of demarcation. Effective leaders must play a role in implementing their own visions, and effective managers must not only buy into the leader’s vision, they must act in part as leaders to those below them. High level managers (executives) must play a role, both in the formulation and the implementation of the organization’s vision.”

Basically, they’re saying yes, there is a distinction, clearly, but it’s not that helpful, and we don’t need to focus on that as much. Furthermore, I did some more research and found in the Wall Street Journal there is a guide called The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management by Alan Murray, published by Harper Business. And there was an excerpt published online and I’ll link to it in the show notes. This says, “Leadership and management must go hand-in-hand. They are not the same thing, but they are necessarily linked and complementary. Any effort to separate the two is likely to cause more problems than it solves.” Then finally in this article they quoted a whole bunch of distinctions that were made by the leadership and management guru Warren Bennis in his 1989 book On Becoming a Leader, things like “the manager administers, the leader innovates.” “The manager focuses on systems and structure, the leader focuses on people” and so on and so forth. But, and I quote from this article, “Perhaps there was a time when the calling of the manager and that of the leader could be separated. A foreman in an industrial era factory probably didn’t have to give much thought to what he was producing or to the people who were producing it. His or her job was to follow orders, organize the work, assign the right people to the necessary tasks, coordinate the results and ensure the job got done as ordered. The focus was on efficiency. But in the new economy, where value comes increasingly from the knowledge of people and where workers are no longer undifferentiated cogs in an industrial machine, management and leadership are not easily separated. People look to their manager not to just assigning them a task, but to define for them a purpose. Managers must organize workers, not to just maximize efficiency but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results.”

Amen! One last thing, in this article they also quote the late management guru Peter Drucker, and they say he was one of the first to recognize this truth, as he was to recognize so many other management truths. He identified the emergence of the knowledge worker and the profound differences that would cause in the way business was organized. With the rise of the knowledge worker, Peter Drucker wrote, “One does not manage people. The task is to lead people, and the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of ever individual.”

So, back to the question, what’s the difference between being a leader and being a manager? What’s the difference between management and leadership? And my answer is, yes there is a difference, but stop it. In the words of my Twitter friend John Buck, stop it, because I don’t understand what’s the point? And if I can read to you things from the 1980s and the 1990s that said “stop it,” it’s no longer helpful, why here in 2018 are we still trying to split hairs?

That’s my perspective. I’d love to hear yours, though. Let’s get a conversation going. I’m definitely open to changing my mind, but I feel pretty strongly at this time, based on what I know, that the distinction is no longer helpful and we should focus our efforts on just developing the right skills. We can call them something new. We can call them leadership management skills, and goodness gracious, when I put #leadership on the content that I share, I’m definitely not thinking specifically leadership as opposed to management. I’m thinking very holistically.

That’s it for another episode of the Ask Halelly format of the TalentGrow Show. I am Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and I’m so glad that you listened in this time. As always, I definitely want to continue the conversation, to hear what you thought and to learn from you. Let me know, drop me a line, drop me a voice mail, and let’s keep talking. Thanks for listening, and until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

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