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We need to stop managing and start leading. Here are 4 ways to be a leader

Tiffany Danko and Susan Vroman make the case for not wanting or needing more managers. Rather we crave leaders to show us where to go, then get out of the way.  

We need to stop managing and start leading. Here are 4 ways to be a leader
[Photo: Westend61/Getty Images]

When our students ask if leading and managing is the same thing, the answer is a resounding “no!” Managers are formally appointed, titled employees who leverage their legitimate positions of power. Leaders may not have formal authority at all and can be found at all levels of an organization. 

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A successful manager sets goals and ensures their team’s work adheres to performance standards that tend to be measurable, whereas a leader defines a vision for the future. Managers are often risk-averse to ensure quality in the work they are responsible for is as good as they, themselves, could deliver. Leaders, on the other hand, espouse and enact value sets that their followers identify with, coaching and motivating others to act. They behave in a way that inspires others to follow them. Leaders influence people, while managers manage work.

There are also clear differences in what we expect from managers versus what we see in leaders. For managers, work is an activity which people and processes execute. They allocate tools like budget, plans, and staffing models to produce consistent results. Leaders, on the other hand, are expected to set long-term goals and generate an alignment of energy to mobilize forces toward achieving those goals. They motivate and inspire people to produce changes and ultimately execute efforts toward shared goals. Even before the pandemic, we knew that workers wanted to feel like their work would enable them to grow and make a difference.  

Yet in a circular argument that explains a lot, when an individual contributor delivers strong results, is well liked by their peers, and/or shows strong potential to lead, they are often promoted to be . . . a manager. This title is meant to connote the employee is valued and has authority. Then, we tell managers they are responsible for ensuring the work that a group of people (who may have been their peers the day before) gets done. So, ostensibly they know what to do, but how they do it is the question.

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Compounding the situation further, in 2020, the world went remote without a plan. As researchers of flexible work arrangements prior to the pandemic, we can say that what the global workforce did in 2020 was not what any expert would advise. There was no time to create a transition plan, there were often no agreed upon boundaries established for the employer or the workers, and there was significant confusion on the difference between flex space and flex time. Managers were left flailing to determine how to corral their teams for basics like communication and bigger issues like ensuring work was completed as needed for organizational success.

Managers who thought their job was to monitor and enable their teams’ productivity could no longer see what their teams were working on or how they were doing. There was significant upheaval while many organizations worked to establish new routines, or trial and error until either something worked or people gave up and just accepted the situation. Furthermore, often to avoid losing more talent during the Great Recession, those who rose to the occasion and whom the company felt it could not do without were likely to be promoted themselves–to more management roles.

While some companies have made the investment to upskill their talent, many others have not. Even before the pandemic, many managers felt that they lacked the necessary training to do their work and they still lack it. Many make up their own rules of how to perform based on what they’ve previously observed. In their own ways, managers are saying to their teams that they need them to work as hard, efficiently, and effectively as they did because people expect that from them.  

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Managers may forget that what got them to their positions wasn’t likely because they were managed into being successful. Stand-out talent led themselves in a way that stood out, proving that they could be successful by achieving their own goals and objectives at work. New managers should remember that the next generation of top talent doesn’t need to be micro-managed; they want a leader that connects employee interests and capabilities with their own opportunities to shine. They want a manager who can enable them to execute their own goals and objectives.

To enable growth, maximize engagement, and even foster retention, managers need to be leaders. Here are four strategies to achieve this.

Recognize and accept the situation–then act

Gaining this clarity enables you to not only lead the team through any challenges, but to be mindful of what they need from you besides marching orders. Understand how your job responsibility has changed, and adapt to the new requirements—both for yourself and those you are managing.   

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For those who are unclear about changing expectations between remote, hybrid, and in-person work, improvisation is not the answer. While you may feel the pressure to keep tabs on your people if you can’t see them, did anyone ask you to? If something has changed and you were not told, that’s a problem. But you don’t need to invent ways to ensure your people are staying focused on work (e.g., busy work or detailed status reporting). If you suspect your superiors want something like this, ask them. Structure and guidance is important, but only micromanagers require control of minor or routine matters. As managers, this means letting results speak for themselves, and not micromanaging daily tasks or proving how busy your team is.

Foster positive deviance

Workers want the opportunity to identify options for themselves and to innovate the way they do their work. Recognize there is probably an effective and efficient model for work, and then recognize some molds are made to be broken, or at least bent. Instead of managing a team conforming to a schedule or budget, encourage your team to creatively act in ways that they recognize may improve a technique, streamline efficiencies, or even achieve a better outcome all together.  

If your day-to-day processes need to remain constant, remember that, in a world where the majority of companies had little or no experience with remote or hybrid work three years ago, no one is really expert on how things work best yet. Whether you seek status updates from your team or are rehearsing for a big presentation, why not ask the team for their ideas to make things better? Not as part of their job, but rather as an opportunity to try to innovate and demonstrate trust in ideas.  

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Empower your team

If all of your fingers are stopping leaks in the dam, you can’t walk away to do new or other important things. Many managers, particularly those new to the role, are apprehensive about giving up their control, and wind up micromanaging their direct reports. 

Task delegation is one common method managers use to break out of their micromanaging ways. Delegating tasks, however, is different from empowering authority. Moving from task delegation to empowerment is the shift between managing and leading. Consider determining what opportunities are low-risk (to start) components of overall goal achievement, then grant a member of your team the ability to make decisions.  

Empowerment will also come with accountability if something goes wrong. Empowering a team, therefore, not only distributes the wealth of roles and responsibilities, it engages them to think like owners of personal and/or team success. Not only does this free the manager for other responsibilities, but it also provides team members autonomy and direction over their own work, and direction in the ultimate achievement of the team’s goals.

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Be brave

You’ve clearly done something right if you’ve been promoted to manager. While this may have meant your code was flawless or your analysis was thorough, chances are you tried something that differentiated you from your peers. You took the time to learn the ropes, refined your methods, then took a chance. Why stop now?

Managers may be risk-averse to mitigate the chances of something taking progress or execution off track, but leaders see opportunities and take them. Be prepared to take the initiative and opportunities to ask “why” and do something different. Followers are looking to be inspired by their bosses. Leaders aren’t afraid to listen and act on feedback, enabling their teams to achieve an inspiring vision.

Managing a team too tightly doesn’t lead to success–it leads to resentment and contempt. In the new era of work, we simply do not want or need more managers. We crave leaders to show us where to go, then get out of the way.  

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Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.


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