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The Difference Between Managing and Leading

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Bob Priest-Heck

Bob Priest-Heck

President

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Companies need both great managers and great leaders

Which describes you best?

A.      I get great satisfaction by checking things off my list and accomplishing tasks in a measurable way. If I can’t see that progress is being made, I’m restless and will poke around to get things moving again. I am good at supervising other people in a way that ensures mutual success. I know how to manage for outcomes, focusing on the details that matter. When I’m in the zone, everything goes like clockwork.

B.      I am a big-picture person. I can articulate a clear vision, purpose and strategy and inspire other people to execute against a plan that describes “what beautiful looks like.” I am usually running too fast to spell out the tactical details. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with great lieutenants who, if they know where we want to go, can be trusted to keep the trains on track and running on schedule.

If description A fits you best, you are probably a great manager. And if B sounds more like your modus operandi, you are probably a true leader. The thing is, successful companies need both. And it’s important to have enough self-awareness to understand which you are and what you aspire to be as your career unfolds. Most of us are better at one than another. And it is almost impossible to do both well at the same time. Managers and leaders use different skill sets, so it’s important to know where you are happiest and most effective.

Many leaders start out as managers and then are promoted into positions of leadership. But it can be very hard for a good manager to let go of the details and shift focus. This was my own experience early in my career. I’d been a very hands-on COO who managed several department heads and enjoyed watching our sales numbers grow. When I was promoted to CEO, I found that I enjoyed articulating a vision and strategy for the company – but resisted delegating the details to my managers. It meant letting go of what I was good at and trusting that the people would follow – and act on – my lead. A few years later, when I joined a start-up company and was once again in a position of supervising the work of others, it was even harder to switch back to a manager mode.  I knew how to sketch out the big picture, but had to relearn the knack of filling in the details to make that picture a reality.

The question we each need to ask ourselves is, where do I do my best work? Where am I happiest?

If you desire a long and successful career as a great manager – which is no small goal – align yourself with great leaders and push their comet into the rarefied atmosphere of success. Take care of the details, and you’ll be taken care of.

If you are a manager who aspires to be a true leader, you need to be realistic about where you are in your career and set different goals. Surround yourself with the right mix of people who complement your skills.  Hire great managers who can execute your vision and then teach yourself to let go of the details. Understanding the difference between being a manager and a leader is the first step to being the best you can be – whichever one that is.

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