What is the real difference between being a manager and a leader? And which one do you aspire to be more of yourself? While you and I have probably never met, I’m willing to bet you a lottery ticket that you already have a pretty good definition of what a leader versus a manager is. At a minimum, you might respond, “I know it when I see it,” right? And most of us have an intuitive sense of what good and bad leaders and managers are like.
One of the reasons for this is that, over the past 100 years or so, there has been a lot of ink spent describing leaders and managers and the differences between them. These terms have infused our culture to the point where we can have a good laugh at the caricatures of mis-management…
That said, even though most of us feel like we “know it when we see it,” there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding the purpose of management and leadership. For example, being a leader is universally viewed as something positive and even idolized today. Being a manager — even a good manager — is often seen as negative or unnecessary to the “important” work getting done.
Peter Drucker, the godfather of management consulting, did his part to promote this idea. You might recall his claims that “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work” and “Only three things happen naturally in an organization: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.” Is it any wonder that most of us aspire to be leaders and not managers?
I want to set the record straight and bring some balance back to the collective view of management and leadership. Management and leadership are not two distinct things but two sides of the same coin. One is not superior to the other. They are both necessary and complementary elements to building a successful and thriving organization.
A New Definition of Management and Leadership
Perhaps the most famous definition on the differences between management and leadership is, once again, Peter Drucker’s observation from the 1960s that “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Is Drucker correct? Partly. Like a lot of definitions, it points to an aspect of the truth. “Doing things right” here refers to being efficient. “Doing the right things” refers to being effective. So we could paraphrase Drucker and say, “Management is being efficient and leadership is being effective.”
Twenty-five years later, another great management thinker, Dr. Ichak Adizes, expanded Drucker’s definition by declaring that, “Management is to make things effective and efficient in the short run and the long run.” What Adizes was recognizing is that every system must maintain its integration with a changing environment. This requires the very difficult task of being both efficient (doing things right) and effective (doing the right things) now and over time.
Notice that Adizes only spoke to management and not leadership. Was he ignoring the concept of leadership altogether? No, he was simply recognizing that the current concept of leadership was just another fad in a progression of fads. Basically, if a system is to be effective and efficient over time then it must be “managed,” whatever terms are used to describe it.
Aside: The first management theories used the term “administration,” hence an MBA is a Masters in Business Administration. When administration didn’t seem to have all of the answers, the new fad became “management” until it was recognized that management didn’t have all the answers either. So the next new popular term became “leadership.” But when “leadership” was seen to have holes too, the hot new concept became “executive leadership” with traditional leadership, management, and administration delegated down into the organization. Now we have servant leadership, progressive leadership, the executive-as-coach, etc. This naming trend will continue, but of course changing the names doesn’t solve the underlying challenge. The problem/opportunity of management and leadership, or whatever you want to call them, is making the system efficient and effective in the short run and the long run.
Being both effective and efficient in the right balance against a changing environment is very challenging and reveals that no single individual can do it alone. There is no super manager or super leader. In order to be successful, you need a complementary team where each member can play to their respective strengths in an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Carrying this line of thought forward, I think there is still a more nuanced definition on the differences and complementary nature of management and leadership. One that builds on the observations of both Drucker and Adizes and helps to put these terms into their proper context. It is this: “Management is making a system effective and efficient in the short run. Leadership is making it effective and efficient in the long run.”
Why do I define management and leadership like this? It can be helpful to see the underlying concepts in a picture. Granted, this picture gives you a lot to take in at first glance. But once I walk you through the core concepts (and their implications), you’ll gain a new perspective and clarity on what management and leadership really are.
The first thing to notice about this picture is that it should closely mirror what your intuition and experience already tell you about management and leadership. Management is usually thought of as being short-range oriented, taking a structured approach, and getting the daily/weekly work accomplished. This is the red Producer-Stabilizer zone in the map above (my wife Linda tells me it’s pink, not red, but I can’t bring myself to write pink throughout the rest of this article).
Leadership, on the other hand, is usually viewed as being long-range oriented, taking an unstructured approach, and keeping the culture unified towards a collective vision, mission, and strategy. This is the blue Innovator-Unifier zone in the map above. Just understanding this little bit of the map should start to provide immediate insights.
For instance, if you come across a quote like, “Managers are bottom-line oriented,” you should have an intuitive sense that this person is speaking to the Producer and Stabilizer quadrants in the red zone which are short-range oriented, take a structured approach, and are all about delivering measurable results.
Comparatively, a quote like “Leaders are big-picture oriented” is referencing the Innovator and Unifier quadrants in blue, which are all about the long range/big picture, take an unstructured approach, and need a cohesive strategy and culture in order to realize their vision.
In fact, if you take most quotes on management and leadership, you’ll find that they match this map closely. “Managers get people to do what needs to be done” vs. “Leaders get people to want to do what needs to be done.” “Managers explain what we have to do” vs. “Leaders explain where we are going.” Or “Managers direct and control” vs. “Leaders motivate and inspire.” These are all pointing to their respective zones, management in red and leadership in blue.
Now that we have an emerging map to show the role of management (to make the system effective and efficient in the short run) and leadership (to make the system effective and efficient in the long run) we can get to the good stuff by answering some key questions:
- What’s your style now?
- What style do you want to express more of?
- What style does your organization want you to express more of?
- What style is needed in others that complements your own?
Being able to answer these questions will instantly make you a better manager and leader of yourself and others. Let’s break it down…
What’s Your Style?
You are both a manager and a leader of your own life and work but you are not equally strong in all dimensions. Do you thrive more at driving results or at empathizing with people? Are you more of a rock star at orchestrating details or at finding creative solutions to complex problems? Can you do all of these things? Absolutely! You’re just not equally strong across all areas and definitely not at the same time. One of the secrets to being a better manager and leader is to know your own current and desired “style,” the styles of others, and the styles that are needed in different roles in the organization.
Basically, you want to play to your strengths and create the space and role clarity for others to play to theirs too, all while building shared consciousness in the organization that all styles have strengths and weaknesses and it takes a complementary team to thrive.
You can think of a “style” — whether it’s called a personality style, management style, or leadership style — as an energy-efficient behavior that you’ve developed over time. No two styles are exactly alike but there are some core themes.
The four main styles in Organizational Physics are based on the Producing, Stabilizing, Innovating, and Unifying forces. Together, these represent the drives to make the system effective and efficient in the short run and the long run. Each of us has elements of all four styles within us to varying degrees (if we did not, we could not function well for very long) and this — combined with our capabilities, interests, and roles — is what gives rise to our own unique management and leadership style.
The Producer Style
Excels at getting stuff done, working hard, and fighting for victory. This style is usually focused on what to do right now, takes a structured approach, acts fast, and is results-oriented. If you like to work hard and complete your tasks every day, and if under stress and duress you tend to attack the problem and work even harder, that’s a sure indication that you have a strong Producer Style in your makeup.
The Stabilizer Style
Excels at bringing order out of chaos, building quality, and paying attention to details. This style is usually focused on how to do things the right way, is also short-range oriented, takes a structured approach, acts more slowly/methodically, and is process-oriented. If you can take an organizational mess and bring process, organization, and attention to detail to make it work the right way, and if under stress and duress you tend to step back and analyze the problem, that’s a sure sign that you have a strong Stabilizer component in your style.
If you look again at the same image below, you’ll see that the primary difference between the Producer and Stabilizer styles is that the Producer moves much faster and is focused on results while the Stabilizer moves more methodically/diligently and is focused on following the right process. But both styles are required for effective and efficient management in the short run.
Now look closely at the bottom half of the map in blue…
The Innovator Style
Excels at finding new and creative solutions, creating breakthrough opportunities, and being on the cutting edge. This style is usually focused on creating change, is long-range oriented, takes an unstructured approach, acts quickly, and is results-oriented. If you have 13 new ideas before lunch, and you have an almost sixth sense for how current trends will converge in new and amazing ways in the future, and if under stress and duress you tend to spin around semi-erratically chasing one new idea after another, then you likely have a strong Innovator style.
The Unifier Style
Excels at creating rapport, is “we-” or team-oriented, and intuits the feelings behind the words. This style is usually focused on building unity within the culture and team, is long-range oriented and takes an unstructured approach, acts more slowly/appropriately, and is process-oriented. If you can walk into a room and make perfect strangers feel at home, if you have a sixth sense for what people are really feeling (even if they’re saying something different), if you feel accomplished at bringing a team together in unity, and if under stress and duress you tend to seek out consensus and process feelings, then chances are you have a high Unifier style in your mix.
Look again at the map above and note the differences between the Innovator and Unifier styles. The primary difference between them is that the Innovator moves fast, is oriented towards innovation and strategy, and is focused on results while the Unifier moves more appropriately to the setting, is oriented towards people and culture, and is focused on following the right processes that build cohesion. But both styles are required for effective and efficient leadership in the long run.
Once you can learn to spot the patterns of a Producer, Stabilizer, Unifier, or Innovator (you might find it helpful to practice this pattern recognition by playing around with the World’s Fastest Personality Test) or start to become a master of styles by purchasing a PSIU Test Drive for you and your team, you can see how some common combinations result in different management and leadership styles.
Common Combinations of Management and Leadership Styles
Evolving theories of leadership and management have adopted new labels over time. Here are four of the better known ones, marked in yellow on the map, which I will contextualize for you.
The Directive Style
A directive style is a combination of the Producing and Stabilizing forces. If you have a directive style, it usually means that you are oriented towards the short range (GET IT DONE NOW!) and accomplishing the daily/weekly work. You do this by setting clear objectives and rules for your subordinates and by ensuring that your expectations and directions are clearly defined and understood. If things go off track (depending on the week) you’ll either tend to drive yourself and the team to work harder (if your Producing force is up high), or you’ll make sure that things get re-organized and the details are under control (if your Stabilizing force is higher). You can tell if you have a directive style if subconsciously you feel that few others can work as hard as you do and pay attention to the details (and they have to earn your trust first). You tell yourself that if you don’t actively direct and control, things will fall apart or get behind schedule.
The Entrepreneurial Style
The entrepreneurial style is a combination of the Producing and Innovating forces. Being an early-stage entrepreneur (i.e., not just an idea person but a person who is bringing a new idea to life as a successful thriving business) means that you are oscillating — sometimes by the minute — between being a leader and a manager. When you are oriented towards the future and creating breakthrough strategies that leverage market trends, your Innovating force is up high. But when the next minute you’ve got your head down working incredibly hard to accomplish the next task that will bring your vision alive, you’re accessing your Producing force. Contrast Jeff Bezos who has an entrepreneurial style (“Work hard. Make History.”) with his Chief of Staff who has a directive style (“Do what Jeff says or you’re fired. BTW, I’ll follow up with you in 24 hours to make sure you’ve complied.”)
The Transformative Style
The transformative style is a combination of the Innovating and Unifying forces. Embodying a transformative style usually comes later in life. You have exercised your need to be busy for busyness’ sake and instead, you spend most of your time and energy sharing your vision for the future and influencing others to follow and band together. Think of a transformative leader like of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. He’s all about the culture and mission, along with creating an organizational environment where others can apply their gifts and live a life of balance and meaning. Or, on a political level, contrast Barack Obama (“Hope”), who has a transformative style, with Donald Trump (“You’re fired!”), who has a directive style in deal-making.
The Facilitative Style
The facilitative style is a combination of the Stabilizing and Unifying forces. To be an effective facilitator or coach requires both management and leadership. You must have the details of a good process mastered, which is the Stabilizing force. You must also be able to access your Unifying force to intuit what the group really needs and to “hear” what is not being said to facilitate a positive outcome. Think of a leader like Tim Cook of Apple who has a facilitative style and was next in line because his style nicely complemented Steve Jobs’ entrepreneurial style. Or on a political level, think of Bill Clinton (“I can feel your pain”), who has a facilitative style.
There are other combinations of styles — and even aberrant or unhealthy styles that show up when a person is under constant stress and has gone too far in one dimension — but that’s enough to cover many common situations. If you’d like to learn more about other versions of style combinations, read Part II of my book Organizational Physics. Now let’s move on to the need for complementary teams…
Why You Should Celebrate Other Styles
Imagine you have big Innovator style. What do you need around you? That’s right. You need a team that, at various times, can Stabilize by creating processes and systems to digest your vision and systematize how the business sells and delivers; that can also Unify to keep everyone rowing in the same direction; and that can Produce the daily/weekly results to bring your vision to life.
Do you need more Innovating force in the organization? Not very much at all until you are scaling up and launching new business units, which require an innovative leader to actually lead them. But what if you had a team of all Innovators? What would happen? Well, first there would be an internal battle to see who owns the vision. Then there would be a lot of fragmentation on the team, which would start to implode because big Innovators need space to explore their own ideas, not follow someone else’s.
I could tell a similar story for any style on our map. We’re conditioned to seek out and to like people who are like us. Instead, I want to plant the seed that you should seek out and learn to appreciate the styles that complement – not mirror – your own. One style is not superior to the rest. Every system has to be effective and efficient in the short run, which requires management. It must also be effective and efficient over time, which requires leadership.
True, collaborating with other styles and their different time horizons, orientations, perspectives, pace, and capabilities will lead to conflicts. If, however, you can learn to recognize the others’ gifts and skills and how you complement each other, you’re instantly ahead of other managers and leaders who can only accept and appreciate styles like their own.
Not only that, by recognizing and appreciation the gifts of all styles, you create the space and role clarity for others to thrive. This in turn gives you a higher probability of stepping into your own genius zone – doing more of what you’re best at — and moving the organization forward. That recognition alone is at least 50% of being an exceptional leader and manager both at home and at work.
Criticisms of this Map and the Case of Uber
No map will fit every situation and some management thinkers will disagree with me on how I’ve positioned management and leadership. Can you guess where most of the disagreement will arise? It will be where I’m showing the Producer style as a “manager” and not a “leader.” I.e., some (especially the big Producer style) will argue that being a big Producer and leading by example at the front of the lines is the highest form of leadership.
Let me give you a recent example. Travis Kalanick was just fired as the CEO of Uber. The reasons have been well documented. Uber has an amazing business model but also has stumbled with internal cultural and compliance problems that have caused harm to the brand. The board orchestrated Travis’ ouster to the symbolic role of Chairman and they are trying to fill the CEO spot with a more “seasoned” hand. Some employees are apparently jumping ship at the thought of Uber without Travis and the “restore Travis” chants have started to emerge.
Here’s an example from Andrew Chen, a popular entrepreneurship and marketing blogger who has worked with Uber and who wrote the essay, “Travis, Thank You for Leading Us at Uber”. Chen identified four key characteristics that made Travis such a phenomenal leader from his perspective: “Lead from the Front” (Producer), “Details Matter” (Stabilizer), “Always Available” (Producer), and “Optimism and Energy” (Innovator). I’ve included what Andrew wrote in each area and it’s worth reading to understand my point:
Lead from the front (Producer)
“TK asks his team to work hard, but he works harder than all of us. I remember during my first few months at Uber, I’d have 11pm meetings scheduled with him to talk about driver referrals. After a solid hour-long jam session, he’d say he had to leave to get on a conference call on China, and leave for another multi-hour meeting. And Travis would do this all the time, day in and day out. You never feel like the leadership is resting on their laurels, just dialing it in, because TK wasn’t.”
Details matter (Stabilizer)
“As it’s been widely reported, TK cares about the details. He’ll look at your graphs and ask about week-to-week deviations. He’ll ask about the sample sizes on your A/B tests. I’ve worked on projects where he wants to give final approval for the final mockups of flows. TK empowers teams, while simultaneously creating a very high bar for them, because it was constantly reinforced that you had to do things right.”
Always available (Producer)
“It didn’t take me long to learn that if a random rider or driver emails Travis on his @uber.com email, he’ll read it and often forward it to the teams to fix ASAP. And he’d often play support, replying and explaining things himself. TK didn’t just do this for customers – but also for employees. Every week during our company all-hands, he’ll take questions from anyone, and answer them off the cuff. He’d commit to following up 1:1, regardless of your seniority or role in the company. This availability made it easy to feel heard, and that you had ownership/input into all the problems we have as a team.”
Optimism and energy (Innovator)
“Sometimes you have to give good news to people, and sometimes you have to explain that there’s problems. TK often called himself “Chief Problem Solver” and it was because no matter how bad things got, and how down the team would get, he would jump in with energy, ideas, and solutions. And because of his hustle and determination, it meant there was a solution for everything.”
“It’s these qualities, and more, that’s made Uber so successful. It’s hard to imagine someone else stepping into TK’s shoes, and the bar will be insanely high.”
So what’s going on here? First I want you to notice that Andrew Chen is a big Producer himself and big producers greatly admire and get motivation from other big Producers. But beyond that, would you say that TK is a great leader that will be hard to emulate or a great entrepreneur that will be hard to replicate?
In fact, what led to Travis’ downfall (maybe he’ll come back) is that he failed to integrate the Unifying force to align with current social norms and this started to have negative repercussions on the brand. Board members will tolerate a lot in a fast-growing company but not this, and it ultimately came back to bite Travis in the ass.
Transcending the need to lead by example and always be available is a hard journey for many entrepreneurs and big Producers to make. But it’s a critical step in the evolution of a leader. For example, one of the most famous (infamous) big Producers of all time is old blood-and-guts himself, U.S. General George S. Patton. Among other things, Patton is famous for his line, “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of my way.” Can’t you almost smell the Producer sweat seeping out from his pores? So was Patton a leader? Absolutely.
Certainly, when the environment calls for it, the big Producer style that you can see in TK in entrepreneurship or Patton in war can really thrive as a leader of people and a manager of short-range tactics. In Patton’s case, when war was afoot, he had a great style match for the job at hand, appearing to lead the troops or direct traffic from the front of the line. But when peace was achieved, he was out of his depth (and his interests) and was quickly put out to pasture.
I’m a big Producer by nature too so I resonate with this quote by Patton, especially when I’m under stress and time pressure. And that’s also the key to understanding why the Producer can be considered as much a management style as a leadership style. Fundamentally, the Producer style is short-range oriented and so, if it’s up really high, it’s really a way of “managing” a crisis in a high-pressure situation. Sometimes taking direct action yourself is necessary; other times it’s a detriment.
In my career, I get to coach hundreds of CEOs of all styles and I have to say that, when scaling up a fast-growing organization, the Producer style often has the hardest time letting go of some of their Producing force and shifting to more of an Innovator style (if they are the product visionary) or Unifier style (if they are the cultural guru) or both. But ultimately, if the organization is going to scale, the big Producer leader needs to become a world-class organizational designer and delegator, rather than a world-class doer.
So I get why a big Producer, especially one with an outsized personality, can be considered a leader and not a manager. And honestly, if it’s war time or the business is in a fight for its life, let the big Producers roll and get out of their way. The tasks are short-range and clear. There’s no real time for planning, human resource development, true innovation, or even brand development. It’s just all action — all firefighting — all the time. But that’s also not how you scale the business to the next level, so even the most intense big Producer must ultimately learn to shift out of managing by directive into leading by design.
Why This Matters
I don’t think this will be the last perspective you read on the differences between a manager and a leader. Using the map I’ve shown you, however, you’ll be able to analyze new theories by placing them within the broader context, and within a systems perspective. No matter what newfangled language is being used, the bottom line is that every organization needs both leadership and management; it must shape and respond to its environment by focusing both the whole and the parts. In other words, you need management to make the system effective and efficient in the short range, and you need leadership to make it effective and efficient in the long range. Armed with this map, you now also have perspective to decide if the next trend is really helpful or just a passing fad.
This all matters because the idolization of leaders and the downgrade of managers has become excessive and naive at best. Management and leadership do not operate in isolation. This is true within ourselves and within our organizations. No single individual can excel in all four dimensions at once. It takes a complementary team to make a system effective and efficient now and over time. The highest performing teams are able to collectively recognize the gifts of multiple styles and perspectives, so that each team member is recognized for their unique contributions. With a complementary team built on respect and trust, you can accomplish great feats. Without one, your organization will sink. I hope this brings some much-needed and valuable perspective to the debates around management and leadership and thanks for reading.