Skip to content

Why we talk about leaders and not managers

Do you identify as a leader, a manager, a coach, a team lead, a people leader?

We have so many terms that different organisations use to talk about people who lead others. Often, the term used has become part of the company’s vocabulary as it underpins a philosophical standpoint on how the company is structured — or in some cases company’s have never thought about it and just use what everyone else does!

I was recently talking to a leader who commented that to them the term “manager” represents some hierarchical system that enforces a role and its authority, while leadership was an overused term that had lost its meaning after witnessing too many bad leaders. They instead preferred the term “coach” as it embraced the ideals of supporting others to succeed in their roles. In contrast, another leader remarked that they felt coaching was just a function of an effective manager and if they were described as a coach alone would diminish a lot of the work they do.

It got me thinking about why at Team & Work we are using the term “leader” even though we are happy to relate to all labels that individuals resonate with to define their roles. It also emphasised that our thoughts of leadership shouldn’t be clouded by leaders we have experienced who applied (and often only learnt) broken leadership principles or were leaders via position or title and not reverent power. And how much we need to redefine what a true leader is in order to develop the leaders we all badly need. Thus we think we can refine the old definitions of managers, coaches and leaders bringing the capabilities together to reimagine a type of leadership that will serve us all.

What once worked won’t work now

The quote most often referenced when looking at the difference between leadership and management is from Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus in 1985, expressing that:

“Leadership is doing the right thing. Management is doing things right.”

And we can see why this worked well in a historically mechanistic and relatively stable world. We needed some people to lead via creating a shared vision (the what) and then identifying the broader strategies (the how and why) to bring that vision into reality. And then others needed to translate those strategies into operational projects and tactics.

But as technology has rapidly evolved and we are experiencing crises from climate change, inequality, economic stagnation and a pandemic, the world has shifted to a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) place where long-term strategies break down and operational plans need to be fast and proactive. Now, there needs to be a collective understanding of what the issues are, how to solve them and why they are important in order to succeed within the current ecosystem.

This also meant a stigma started to develop around the term management with people recognising if managers by definition direct a process, tell workers what to do, (and sometimes even how to do it) this role was not going to help organisations meet the dynamic challenges they were facing. Originally the management role was designed to help large and complicated organisations not descend into chaos in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management became about consistency and best practice.

In 2001 John Kotter defined management and leadership as:

“Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.”

In 2020, however, we think this has changed to any leader (whether called a manager, leader or coach) needs to cope with both complexity and change. For in networked companies that have flat structures and good flows of information it doesn’t matter where in the organisation you are, you’ll need to deal with complexity, change, and collaborate with others on strategy and execution. In addition as a people leader you need to empower your team, create a safe space for emergent ideas and become adaptive in your mindset and approach. It is challenging for all of us as humans to work in ambiguous spaces but leaders who develop these capabilities will develop great teams that work better together and have an impact.

Unfortunately, many organisations today are still operating from the old positions of command, control, planning and managing. In fact for some, the more unpredictable the world becomes the more they want to control, unable to embrace the uncertainty. But embracing uncertainty is one of the fundamental leadership skills needed to build a successful and meaningful organisation today. This takes an understanding of how our organisations are now moving towards being complex systems and not complicated hierarchies with artificial boxes and hierarchies — that if facilitated by great leadership throughout the organisation they will have their own order, resilience and ability to solve the problems they face.

Thus redefining “leadership” to embrace both complexity and change and to be at its core the ability to expand the potential of the people around us.

We believe that everyone is a leader in some way and that the term can embrace the capabilities of a great leader, coach and manager all in one. This doesn’t mean to say you need to change your title or your role — it just means we are talking to YOU when we say “leader” no matter what label you are using.



Sign up

for our newsletter!

Our mission to help develop the leaders and teams that will shape the new world is not something we can do alone. If you are interested in the future of work and how we can co-create new leadership principles please follow along!

Scroll To Top