How to be a leader instead of manager

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.

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.

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 agreement 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, we often 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.

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