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Cage Match: ‘Leaders’ vs ‘Managers’

May 20, 2013

I was a management snob. I’m not ashamed to admit that I revered “Leaders” and held “Managers” in disdain.

Leaders are visionaries.
Managers implement someone else’s vision.

Leaders give stirring speeches.
Managers run boring meetings.

Leaders risk much and aren’t afraid to fail.
Managers play it safe and are overly concerned with meeting preset criteria.

Leaders, inspire people to achieve great things!
Managers, don’t.

Think of the great leaders in history:

General George Patton
President Abraham Lincoln
Bill Gates
Reverend Martin Luther King
General Sam Houston

Now, let’s list some of the great managers in history. . .

Well, I’m sure their families know their names even if we don’t. This is why they don’t make movies called, “The Guy Who Figured Out How To Increase Production by 19%.” And they don’t have awards like, “Met quarterly goals for 9 quarters in a row.”

When I started in business, back at WordPerfect I dreamed of being a leader. I didn’t particularly want to be a manager. And I was just a little disappointed when my supervisor turned out to be more of a manager than a leader.

Two things changed my mind about leaders vs managers.

The more I learned about business, the more I realized that managers fill a critical role. Managers can be leaders, but that’s not their role. I read “First Break All The Rules” and was amazed at what a difference good managers made to successful businesses.

Richard Branson is an industry leader. He has vision. He is willing to risk much. He’s building a private spaceship line. THAT is vision. But, he’s not the first to dream of going to the stars, or running an airline, or any of the other things he’s doing. Without someone to take that vision and turn it into reality, he’d probably be one more guy with big dreams who couldn’t get them off the ground.

My education really took off when I was put into leadership and management roles. I ran a couple of startups. We were living on investor money trying to get our version 1.0 out the door. I had a good team, but most of them were very junior. I spent lots of time on the vision and big picture. I left it mostly to my Director of Development to plan the work. If you are familiar with Agile Programming, it was Dave’s job to plan the tasks for each sprint. He measured our velocity. I told him which features were most important, but he took care of the management tasks of actually figuring out how to get them done. We shipped on time, because Dave made sure we met our development goals.

And in the management roles I’ve been in, I realized that while there is a need for the person up front leading the pep rally, after the rally, the team is going to come back all excited and asking “What do we need to do to achieve that vision?”

People, especially engineers and programmers want to know what is expected of them. A good manager makes sure they understand what to do. A great manager makes sure they understand why they are doing it.

So, I apologize to all those managers over the years whom I secretly derided for not being visionary leaders. In hindsight, they were very good at what they did. Once I figured out that the role of a manager I tried to adopt some of their management traits.

I introduced this post as a cage match. While I think I now understand the role of leaders and managers, if the prototypical leader and manager DID get in the cage, the leader would tell a rousing speech and get the crowd on his side and then the manager would very quickly take him apart, while the crowd booed.

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