The difference between managers and leaders.

A friend was commenting today how rewarding and moving it was for their team to talk about what they learned and felt over the course of shipping a major product release. I always felt that was the best part about shipping – giving praise and thanks to everyone who made it happen. It inspired me to articulate my beliefs on the difference between phone it in average management and real leadership, and what I strive for personally.

I believe the fundamental difference between managers and leaders is in making ideals into reality.

What follows will have a lot of idealistic statements for those that may puke at the Hallmark  generalizations. But I do think that wanting to make reality into something better is what defines leadership in any domain, beyond any trivial application in business. Think of the people in history who are remembered exactly because they made reality better.

For the purpose of a binary oversimplification, managers or people who aren’t leaders make do with how things are and accept reality as is. Something may be clearly wrong or less than it could be, but you just go in, rearrange the deck chairs on your section of the Titanic and collect a paycheque. Leaders have a clear vision of what could and should be, and work to unleash the emotional and intellectual power of those they serve to attain that shared ideal state. In leading change, I think you have to be on some level offended by the inadequacy of current reality to do something about it in spite of the odds, rather than live with what’s feasible in current constraints.

Managers make people do tasks based on structural authority and resource control. People then trade their time for money in a practical decision. Leaders inspire passion and commitment by enabling higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid instead of just the food and shelter part. If you think in terms of enabling people’s goals while channelling collective efforts towards a higher purpose, it engages an emotive state beyond just the rational. Managers instead talk about what they want. Leaders ask what other people want and find ways to give that as net givers rather than takers.

Managers have credibility based on variables like age/experience/seniority or hierarchy. While there is an obvious relationship between decision making effectiveness and experience, I do not believe intelligence increases over time more than the set of information it operates on. So as a leader you can recognize the quality of people’s thinking even if they have some other gap. If intelligence is defined most reductively as the ability to learn new things, and experience is what other people call their mistakes, leaders can recognize the credibility and value of what their constituents say. Leaders treat people like trusted experts and advisors. Leaders themselves have credibility that is based on trust and competence, which would hold true even if situational factors like hierarchy were removed.

Managers find faults in people’s capabilities and consequently limits on what can be achieved. Leaders identify the strengths people have and focus on developing them, exerting a multiplier effect and helping people to achieve more than they thought possible. People who are more insecure about their own ignorance or uncertainty tend to be harsher on others for theirs. While Andy Grove made a reasonable point about needing to present certainty when others look to you for clarity and direction, leaders are able to see failure or misunderstanding as a necessary part of learning and acknowledge they have something to learn as well. If you think about the best people you ever worked for, they’re not only the ones you learned the most from, but also made you feel like you taught them something too.

Managers say “I” a lot. Leaders say “We”. Managers take credit for success and place blame for failure. Leaders flip that relationship. They recognize and reward others for any success obtained and take full responsibility for anything that goes wrong because that makes the collective stronger than throwing people under the bus. Managers make people feel small in front of others. Leaders make people feel like superheroes, praising in public, correcting in private.

Managers leave people feeling like they had decisions imposed on them. Leaders leave people feeling the dignity of choice and authors of their own plot. Managers do what they do because they have to. Leaders have a deeper sense of purpose and values guiding their actions, so do what they think is right. Managers tell more than listen. Leaders listen as much as they tell – I’m not going to say that they don’t tell because that’s what part of the job is. Managers say one thing and do another and make excuses. Leaders do what they say they are going to do without excuses.

These are some of the idealistic barf inducers I try to manifest.

Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders

To expand further on this line of thinking, Rajeev Peshawaria’s “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders” is probably the best self contained model on management / leadership and organizational design that I’ve read. Certainly there are titans like Peter Drucker and the aforementioned Grove who had great insights on various aspects of leadership. What I liked about Peshawaria’s approach is that has a simple yet complete model from top to bottom in an organization.

It can be summarized as a series of questions/statements to assess leadership effectiveness at each level – the self, the team and larger enterprise. It makes for a neat organizational scorecard. You can have people score each statement on a scale and then graph how things change over time.


Self Leadership: 

You can’t be a leader without being clear on your purpose and values as they respectively define what you want to create and how you will create it. Courage of conviction cannot exist without clarity of purpose. Peshawaria says the only two limitless sources of energy as a leader are in purpose and values. I’d say love and fear are pretty powerful engines too, but maybe that’s a different way of saying the same thing. Peshawaria suggests the first 3 questions for clarifying purpose and the last 3 for values.

Why am I here: What are the few things that are important to me? Figuring this out puts a finger on purpose. You can never have work-life balance if you are unclear on purpose – it will always be trading time against the things you really care about. I agree with Marissa Mayer that burnout is actually resentment from having to trade your time away from what is really most important to you.

Leadership Type: Do I want to lead a simple life rich with every day pleasures? Achieve great things on my own without the hassle of other people? Work with others for a better future and share the credit for it? Do something entirely different? Just want the prestige associated with leadership? The answers to these questions decide true motivations in leadership.

Outcomes: What results do I want to bring about as a person?

Known For: How do I want people to experience me? The more you think about how you want to be remembered, the clearer you get on your values.

Decision Making & Actions: What values govern my behaviour and decisions? You can’t lead if you don’t have some kind of philosophy for how to navigate uncertainty and conflict.

Emotional Response: What situations cause me to feel strong emotions? These are important sign posts – such as the feeling of nailing a solution to the point it seems like magic, or what you hate / love.


Team Leadership:

This level is about enabling a team of direct reports to perform to a higher standard. The simplest and best way to figure out how to motivate people is to just bloody ask them. People have multiple layers of motivations and with varying proportions – people are coin operated, want to be proud of the things they put their name on, want recognition and respect, to be left in peace. As an all encompassing explanatory model, I firmly believe in Self Determination Theory and think it has application here.

Once you figure out what motivates each team member individually, connect their day to day work with that and design jobs so that people get to do what they do best and care most about. If there is no match between motivators and the work at hand – find a better fit rather than try and force through carrots or sticks. Ultimately it’s better for the team and the individual / job for whom there is a poor fit.

Most employees care about the same basic things – their Role, the Environment they do it in and their Development. As a leader, you need to understand what people care about in these areas and connect their day to day to work to it. Sometimes people can’t see it for themselves, and this provides a level of motivation beyond basic hygiene factors like compensation or commute time.


Role Assessment:

The best leaders know they don’t have enough time in the day because they are not investing enough time in their people rather than the other way around. You accomplish more and I think it is the fundamental shift from being an individual performer to someone who enables the performance of a team.

Instead of giving commands, guide discovery and buy-in of what you had in mind and give people a role in the decisions that affect them. Be open to better ideas than your own from others. The source matters less than the quality of thinking. Paying people buckets of money only releases rational energy (although I’m sure the contributors to one of my favourite Twitter accounts disagree). Enabling people’s aspirations for their role releases a level of emotional energy that is the only way to build things that kick ass.

Vision: Does our organization have a compelling vision for success?

Strategy: Do we have an effective strategy to achieve that vision?

Goals: Do people feel they have challenging but achievable goals connected to that strategy and vision?

Autonomy: Do people have sufficient freedom and authority to do their job well? As a leader, you should control the end but not the means. It’s often easier / faster to just issue a command rather than open discussion, but situations that really require “my way or the highway” are few. There are times when it would be no skin off your back to let people have autonomy on a matter and would pay dividends for the times you need them to just do as you ask.

Personal Connection: Does people’s roles align with their purpose and values?


Environmental Assessment:

Communication: Do you regularly engage with people and have a good sense of what is important to them? As a leader I think you should never make people feel like they are the least important use of your time.

Involvement: Do people feel their opinion on important issues is sought and respected?

Collaboration: Do people feel the culture emphasizes collaboration over undermining each other?

Respect: Do people feel treated with dignity and respect?

Relatedness: Do people feel a sense of community / friendship beyond just being tenuously connected functional work units?

Fairness: Do people think the reward and recognition system is fair?

Performance: Do people believe mediocrity is accepted?


Development Assessment:

Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. I strongly believe in this idea championed by Gallup and the StrengthsFinder people. You’d do better to identify what you do best and develop that to the point it can split atoms, rather than improve the things you suck at to levels of marginally less suck. Identify the core tasks for each role and if people have more weaknesses than strengths that match, move them to another job instead of trying to correct a bad fit. If they’re mostly there, then figure out how to offset those weaknesses and develop their strengths.

Challenge: Do people think they get opportunities to learn and develop in meaningful ways? Nothing is more soul crushing than people feeling like they are wasting their time and abilities. There are a lot of things that are satisfying in life but achieving something you weren’t sure you could do is way up there.

Feedback: Do people get regular coaching and feedback on their performance. You cannot improve performance if there is not a rapid feedback loop, whether between the product and market or the employee and their work.

Strengths: Do you help people identify what they do best and develop that further?

Making things better: Does the organization value entrepreneurship and innovation in ability to deliver results and do people feel responsible for coming up with new ideas to do that?


Enterprise Leadership:

This comes into consideration when the number of people under command are too large to maintain close relationships with each or when there are more than 2 levels of organizational hierarchy beneath you. If the enterprise was a person, Peshawaria says strategy is the brain, structure is the bones and culture is the nervous system. People are the muscle. Cutesy HR metaphor, but makes sense put that way.

I like the idea he suggests to involve as many people possible in strategy formation activities. While people at the top may understand bigger business issues that aren’t widely known, you get better perspectives from people in the trenches on functional work issues than you do from those in disconnected ivory towers. Create multiple teams and have them come up with answers to the following questions that can be stated in 15 minutes / 1-2 pages. Have each team present and pick the best. The questions below are for high level strategy and biased towards the HR side of things, but the technique can be used at all levels of management when deciding what to do about something.

  1. What do we want to be?
  2. Who do we serve and what do for them?
  3. How will we do that? Get to brass tacks in business model analysis on what’s missing or could be done better.
  4. What capabilities do we have that will help us succeed at this?


Strategy Assessment:

Vision: We have a compelling vision for success.

Strategy: We have a unique strategy to achieve that vision.

Application: Vision and strategy are actually transferred into resource allocation and decision making.

Unique Strengths: We have no BS core capabilities that give us a competitive advantage.

All Hands On Deck: Everyone in the organization can clearly and consistently articulate why we matter to people.


Structural Assessment: 

Right People, Right Places: We have top quality talent with the right skills and experience in the right jobs.

Systems & Processes: Our supporting systems (e.g. performance management, promotion processes) encourage the desired performance. People can neither game the system or do good work unrewarded, process doesn’t get in the way of results and makes things easier.

Roles & Rights: Roles, responsibilities and decision making rights are defined as clearly as possible. Think RACI charts.

Prioritize / Eliminate: Our people and resources are deployed in a way that best supports the execution of our strategy. When people complain about too much work or too few resources, as a leader you are not prioritizing enough or telling them what they can ignore. As Steve Jobs said, focus is more about saying no than it is saying yes.

Enabling Structure: The formal organizational structure enables core capabilities. Does it take a dozen sign offs before someone can apply new market knowledge?


Cultural Assessment:

Peshawaria’s definition of culture is elegantly simple – culture is what people do when no one is looking. He says that creating a culture depends on the conviction of the leadership team rather than the technique. Identify the results you want, reverse engineer the behaviours needed to achieve that and then manifest these behaviours in practice. For example, don’t talk up teamwork and then go blaming others when it goes wrong or take credit for other people’s ideas. Put in the right incentives to answer the question why employees should give a shit about demonstrating the desired behaviours. Otherwise you just have an empty management wishlist that people laugh off instead of actually practice.

Tenets: We have a philosophy that is well understood by everyone.

Alignment: Our compensation and rewards are aligned with these behaviours.

Credibility / Trust: Leaders do what they say they are going to do.

Big Picture: We focus on both long term and short term success.

Listen & Learn: We have a culture of listening, learning and constant renewal.

All said I think this is a clean and simple model for leading and designing an organization that creates great things, and things I try to keep in mind in my own practice as a product leader.

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