The subject, ‘what is the difference between managers and leaders?’ seems appealing to those who surf the Internet, yielding over 42 million hits. The ensuing discussion, unfortunately, often leads to a superficial sorting of characteristics into two columns: for example, ‘leaders motivate and inspire in new directions, people follow them’; and ‘managers direct activity and maintain the status quo, people work for them’.

As a manager, you might take exception to this narrow view of your role. After all, you might be leading your team through significant change, or managing a technical/professional group that takes all the creativity you can muster to inspire them to align their work with the organization’s direction

Alternatively, the discussion may be enlightening. The related concepts of ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing things right’, for example, can lead us to be mindful about both. This distinction is often touted as signifying the difference between leaders and managers. However, to think one is the virtue of leaders, and the other of managers dismisses the importance of the manager role.

Whether called leadership or management, the decision-making requirements at all levels of the organization and across all functions require leadership.

Every healthy organization has two key functional areas: 1) establishing the promise through vision and values, and 2) implementing the activities to achieve that promise. Organization leaders and managers have their respective leadership roles within these functions to make the organization work effectively and efficiently.

Here is a quick quiz using two questions to help you understand your manager leadership role in the organization.

Which of the options below better indicates the degree to which you are involved in setting the organization’s vision and values?:

  • I determine the process for planning and interpret the feedback – The organization leader at this level is thinking about what type of organization you will be for clients; what makes you unique and how you will work collaboratively with others; and why a funder would want to invest in you. Leadership at this level requires high-level systems and strategic thinking on an organization-wide basis. The viewpoint is longer term, 5 to 20 years in the future. This work would be done initially by the founding board, with leadership from the CEO for renewal at regular intervals.
  • I organize the input from frontline staff – As a manager leader you are likely closer than the C.E.O. and the Board to the clients who use the organization’s services. You are ideally part of the process of gathering input from the clients and staff about the degree to which the organization is meeting its mandate. Because of feeling they know the needs of clients firsthand, some staff at the frontline of providing direct service are sometimes confused about the Board’s role in setting the direction of the organization. As the person who they report to it is important for you to reinforce the CEO and Board’s role. As well, you have a pivotal role in helping to interpret the feedback from clients and staff.

The focus of planning the organization’s vision far into the future is all about strategic leadership. The CEO provides leadership at the organization level; the manager is leading the staff to contribute to and align with the vision.

Now, consider your role in implementing your organization’s promise.

Which of the options below better indicates the way you are involved in setting objectives and implementing plans on a 1 – 5 year period to carry out the vision?:

  • I spend more time working outside the organization with funders and partners. In this leadership capacity much of your effort is spent forging new partnerships or political understanding and support of your organization’s activities. Considering harm-reduction programs as an example, negotiating with politicians and police helps pave the way for placing a needle-exchange program in a community setting.
  • I spend more time managing staff on site. The closer your position is to leading people to deliver service to clients, the more time you spend on meeting specific objectives that are set for a one year term. This is where you catalyze staff commitment to clear and compelling goals. And, you may stimulate higher performance standards in new directions within your organization.

All levels of leadership in the organization are responsible for engaging staff to do the work in an inspirational way that is consistent with your organization’s vision and values. Even in the human-services industry that attracts staff who care about working with people, staff engagement is not a given.

As mentioned in a previous post, according to A Study of Employee Engagement in the Canadian Workplace, 54.2% to 80% of human resource professionals reported that engagement is a problem in their organization. Considering that Gallup research has shown that managers account for 70% of variance in whether staff are productively engaged in the work of the organization, it is important for managers to develop their people-leadership skills.

So, regardless of your title, be prepared to establish your credentials as a leader if you are working to contribute to or implement the strategic direction of your organization, and/or inspiring staff to align with it.

Note in the comment section examples of how you are a leader in your organization.