Managers Are Not Non-Leaders: Managers Need to Practice Things We Classify as Leadership Traits

Posted on October 14, 2013  Comments (3)

Saying “Managers care about efficiency and leaders care about effectiveness” is like saying “Doctors care about theory and nurses care about patients.”

Managers that don’t care about effectiveness are lousy managers.
Leaders that don’t care about the gemba are lousy leaders.
Doctors that don’t care about patients are lousy doctors.
Nurses that don’t care about theory are lousy nurses.

Your role in the organization (and for the particular situation in question) and training and the situation will impact how you contribute. But the attitude that leaders are visionaries that think big thoughts, make decisions then tell everyone what to do (act as the brain for the organization) is outdated. Every list of what traits are for leaders that then contrasts them with managers that I have seen shows leadership traits managers need.

Seeking to separate leadership and management is a bad idea. If you want to have a few leadership traits that you want to focus on at various points (creating engagement, communicating a vision, building consensus, setting organizational direction) that is fine. But those things are traits managers need; they are not traits reserved for some separate leadership cadre.

And disconnected leaders that don’t understand the organization, the organizations customers etc. are not going to lead well (normally the contrast lists have the managers doing all the hands on stuff, at the gemba, with customers etc.). Nurses may not have as complete an understanding of the theories behind medical treatment decisions but they need to know a great deal of theory to do their jobs well. Everyone contributes and has different roles to play but I don’t see value in the contrast of leaders and managers mentality.

From what I have seen mainly the manager v. leader comparisons seem to be about belittling managers and elevating leaders; but leaders are this vague concept that isn’t well defined. Who are these leaders? Are they only senior executives? They can’t be managers because you are contrasting them with managers – by the contrasting model used they can’t be leaders and managers.


Many of the lists have leaders doing these big picture decision making and then having lots of people follow their instructions type of thinking which makes it seem like the idea is that senior executives are the brain and the others carry out what they decide. But few people believe that anymore. Still the contrast leaders and managers paradigm is still popular.

Good leadership thinking can discuss important leadership traits and how those traits can be beneficial to performance. I don’t think the best leadership thinking says and you should divide the org into leaders and followers. Leaders will do x. Followers will do y and z.

Contrasting leaders with managers is a damaging way to view people’s roles in modern organizations. Just as certain tools and practices are needed at specific times (flowchart, checklist, kanban, mistake proofing) so are traits we lump together and call leadership. You shouldn’t have kanbaners, checklisters, mistake-proofers, flowcharters and leaders that are the masters of those realms. People should use those tools/traits/practices/thinking when they are appropriate.

If you want to call managers, leaders because you like that term better than is fine. Some people seem to have a limiting view of managers. I don’t see it that way, myself, so for me I see managers as a perfectly appropriate term. And I don’t see any leadership trait that is outside the realm of manager. I also believe that attempts to have leaders that don’t have direct hands on management (gemba practice and thinking) is harmful.

The problem I see is when there is a contrast of leaders and managers. From what I have seen that basically boils down to saying managers are suppose to carry out what leaders decide (in these contrast lists, leaders hold themselves above the fray thus separating themselves from managers that are involved in the fray day to day). I do not think that is a wise way to run an organization.

I actually find it a bit confusing because even most of the people that contrast managers and leaders don’t believe in command and control style organizations (leaders decide and order or cheerlead the followers).

If the point is that the leadership traits listed (in the managers v. leaders contrasts you see) are good (and they certainly seem like things everyone would strive for) then why don’t you want managers doing those things? If you do want managers doing those things are they not then desirable traits? Not some separate category of traits that are apart from managers. If they are traits you want to encourage managers to use when appropriate why are you creating a list that says managers don’t do these things? A contrast of managers v. leaders is not a useful view, right?

Those, like me, that want managers to go to the gemba, don’t say managers care about spreadsheets, gembaers care about the real work. That would then mean the managers have to stop being managers and start to be gembaers instead which isn’t what I think is wise. Or it means managers are not suppose to do gemba stuff, which I don’t think is wise.

I can’t believe those contrasting managers and leaders really think managers should not do the good traits included in the leadership lists because they are managers. I feel managers should take advantage of wise practices (like gemba, flowcharts, long term thinking, inspiring people about how they contribute to the success of the organization, building robust systems…) when appropriate.

Related: Leadership is the act of making others effective in achieving an aimThe Best Leadership Is Good Management
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3 Responses to “Managers Are Not Non-Leaders: Managers Need to Practice Things We Classify as Leadership Traits”

  1. Chris Ludwa
    October 16th, 2013 @ 6:04 am

    I couldn’t agree more. The silos that we put people in, whether in business or even in families, are damaging to the full human potential. They create scripts which must be followed, consciously or subconsciously. The practice of leadership occurs in the way we act, not in some structure defined from above or a title. Whether we are leading or managing a household or a Fortune 500 company, both are invaluable. The more successfully we can manage that which is present, the better we are able to lead. The more we can be visionary and embrace our role as leader, the more we’ll be trusted to manage. Both are found in being present in whatever role we find ourselves…

  2. J.D. Meier
    October 22nd, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    I think one of the challenges is when people don’t know whether they are supposed to “change the business” or “run the business.”

    One of the most useful insights I found in The First 90 Days was the STARS model: start-up, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success. It creates a shared language to look at the portfolio of people, process, and product, and agree to the state of each (e.g. start-up, turnaround, realignment, or sustaining success.)

    I was used to treating everything as “change the business.” It hadn’t occurred to me that it was important to first gain agreement on where things are, to gain support on whether they are turnaround or realignment or startup opportunities.

    It makes perfect sense now, but when I first came across that insight years ago, it was a great new lens to help determine whether to “manage” something or “lead a change.”

  3. Leadership Development Carnival – January 2014 |
    January 6th, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    […] Hunter at the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog – In his article, Managers Are Not Non-Leaders: Managers Need to Practice Things We Classify as Leadership Traits, John discusses how management is often demeaned in comparison to leadership and we have much to […]

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