Are You a Leader or a Manager?

There is room to perform both of your roles in leadership – manager and leader. Just make sure you prioritize them in the correct order.

What’s the difference between a leader and manager? Maybe you always thought the words were synonymous. But there is a huge difference between the two and if you have direct reports, you have to perform both roles. I challenge you to lead first and manage second.


The role of manager requires that you get your hands dirty in the details. Managers are good at logistics. They like unraveling the complexity of tactical challenges. If you put your role as a manager first, you probably spend your days answering questions, solving problems and responding to emergencies – embroiled in the day-to-day details instead of focusing on the big picture. Organizations rely on the roll-up-your-sleeves approach of a manager. But leading people requires that you must spend your time on the big picture rather than the details so that your direct reports can stay focused on the ultimate goals your team is chartered to accomplish.

Leaders should inspire and empower their employees, enabling them to solve problems independently and accept higher levels of personal accountability. True leaders call employees up to greatness by investing in (and insisting on) their growth and development.

Principle 1: Resist the urge to add more value. When an employee approaches you with a question or a problem, avoid jumping right in to provide an answer. In the long term, encouraging greater autonomy will pay off. You’ll have a team of empowered employees who don’t need your help to complete their daily tasks.

Principle 2: Coach the person in front of you. Ever had an employee come to you with complaints about another employee? Instead of commiserating and colluding with him (or worst yet acting on his complaint), help the employee redirect his energy from the blame game to something more productive and creative like what they can do to help.

Principle 3: Work on confidence first, and competence will follow. Empower your employees and build their confidence by asking probing questions that help them arrive at their own answers. Over time, this type of coaching helps to elevate thinking and they will rely less on you for guidance. They are likely closer to the situation and have the correct answer inside them. David Rock’s book Quiet Leadership provides an excellent approach if mine doesn’t resonate with you.

Principle 4: Forget logistics and focus instead on hearts and minds. As a leader, your role is to present a compelling vision, think strategically about the future and gain buy-in from influencers and employees throughout the organization. Leave the logistics to others. Learn to trust that others can handle the details.


Principle 5: Allow people to move fully into their roles. If you’re making the transition from a doer to a leader, it can be difficult to let go of your past duties – especially the ones you like. When you don’t let go, however, you deprive someone else of the chance to prove that he or she can rise to the occasion and do the role. It also prevents you from having the time you need to fulfill your leadership role.

These five principles are an invaluable foundation for success as a leader. I coach executives to adopt them, and I follow them religiously myself. If you are trying to make transition leading first and managing second, I encourage you to try them as well. You’ll find that they will bring greater personal accountability, motivation and satisfaction to your workplace, while transforming you into the inspiring leader you want to be.

Cy Wakeman offers a Reality-Based approach to navigating today’s workplace, defying conventional wisdom with bold tips for business leaders and employees on how to “ditch the drama, restore sanity to the workplace, and turn excuses into results.

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