Jul 9 ’14

Business Perspective: Are You a Manager or a Leader?

by Steven Crofts in Enterprise Executive

In the early ’90s, I was working for a software company that developed mainframe database performance monitors. One day it was announced that we were being acquired by a much larger company. It was the first time in my career I had faced an acquisition and it was unsettling, to say the least.

The entire experience turned out to be relatively uneventful and even positive. I was able to work with great people and new mentors. I clearly remember one afternoon when my new boss asked me, “Do you consider yourself a manager or a leader?” 

How would you answer that question?

Over the years, I haven’t forgotten the question and have since asked more than a few employees and co-workers the same. Management and leadership are different but complementary. I really like this quote from John P. Kotter, Ph.D., in his Harvard Business Review article from 1990, “What Leaders Really Do”: “Managers promote stability while leaders press for change, and only organizations that embrace both sides of that contradiction can survive in turbulent times.” 

While small businesses employ nearly 50 percent of all private sector workers in the U.S., and create about 75 percent of the new jobs, many Americans work for large companies. These global enterprises would become completely chaotic and out of control without proper management techniques. Every day, managers face an enormous array of tasks and projects to be measured, studied, organized, fixed, planned and completed. Good managers are critical in today’s complex business environment. Good managers spend time monitoring results, looking at deviations and trends and solving any other problem thrown their way. Properly executed technology helps a great deal and things get done one way or another. 

Leadership, on the other hand, is all about handling change. Examples of companies failing to change quickly enough are everywhere.

Leadership is needed to set a vision of the future. This isn’t easy and can be a balancing act between short- and long-term vision. Leaders need a broad range of data and business feedback to see relationships and be able to explain things. Some might call this fortune-telling. It isn’t that at all. Not everything needs to be new and innovative. Vision isn’t always about originality—it’s about better meeting the current and future needs of customers and employees. 

Leaders make sure everyone is aligned, motivated and excited about the direction and vision of the company—and are committed to its success. Alignment must be communicated and not just created. A leader needs to be able to clearly communicate to the employees and others, including peers, other departments, customers and suppliers. Vision needs to be understood by anyone who is any part of the vision; otherwise, clarity is lost and alignment struggles. Leaders must be credible, so homework is needed for the message to be believable. Once the vision is clear and the team is motivated, leaders must empower those people to go out and do their jobs. Let them learn from mistakes as long as they’re staying true to the vision.

Good leaders keep people moving forward despite any obstacles that come up, regardless of the source of the problem. Sometimes this is done by tapping into the emotional side and basic values and needs of the individual employees in the group. Successful motivation gives people energy. Leaders articulate vision in a way that makes you feel like you’re making a difference to those you serve—whether you provide a service or a product. When an employee feels that, it makes them feel important and motivated.