Lead, Or Manage? Why Not Both?

I am far from a process expert. However, it’s time to weigh in on a topic I see popping up in UX publications: leading vs. managing. As per usual, some of my issue is semantical, but I also see value in reducing negativity around the term “manager.”

A recent UX Matters article synopsized the difference between leaders and managers.

“One of the main differences between a manager and a leader is that managers often, quite unintentionally, function as their employees’ adversary. In contrast, great leaders function as advocates for their employees.”

UX Matters, “Lead, Don’t Manage”

I’ll be blunt. I think this is wrong. Leading and managing are two different skillsets, and managers are not inherently adversarial. In fact, the article goes on to refer to “bad managers” many times, vs “good leaders.” But what about good managers?

Leading vs Managing: The Semantics

Let’s get my semantics caveat out of the way first. Yes, I understand that “manager” can have negative implications. Managing people sounds… icky. It sounds manipulative. Leading, on the other hand, sounds inspirational.

So if you prefer to term leader, go for it. Team leads are popping up all over, and in time perhaps they’ll replace managers. But the two words are not synonymous, and the job roles and expectations aren’t either.

A person can be a leader without being a manager. I know many inspiring people who have great ideas, and lead a project or a team, but would be terrible at managing. Equally, I know some managers who are excellent at their jobs – but they are not leaders.

What Makes a Great Manager?

My theory is that many organizations hire leaders. We love leaders – thought leaders, team leads, project leads. These are people who can see the big picture. They speak confidently to clients or prospects or business partners. Everyone loves a leader.

When a leader is given people to manage, sometimes all they need to do is continue leading and inspiring. But more often, people need a manager. A great manager doesn’t need to inspire, or get people “excited and engaged in achieving great results” (as UX Matters recommends). A great manager needs to:

  • Teach new employees the ropes, and junior members new skills. Leaders may model good behavior, but a good manager can see the individual’s needs.
  • Support team members and listen to them. Sometimes team members need to vent. Other times they need advice. A great manager can offer both.
  • Coach people as they work on projects and move up in their roles.
  • Encourage employees to grow, and advocate for them (as UX Matters recommends, and as leaders can do as well).
  • Manage people – and yes, this sometimes means delivering bad news as well as good.

Can a great leader offer this? Sometimes! Some leaders are also great managers. Alternatively, some people can look to a leader and get everything they need without more detailed management. But a manager focuses on the growth of the individuals, rather than inspiring them.

You Can Lead and Manage, But They’re Not the Same

Management is not inherently bad. And leadership is not inherently good. There are good and bad managers. I’ve seen great leaders who are terrible managers. And great managers who make terrible leaders.

Let’s create organizations that manage well, and lead well.

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