The 12 Traits that Define Managers vs. Leaders

I remember being a young whippersnapper in the big agency world. I could not wait until someone gave me a chance to manage others. I just knew that would be my big break!

The chance came a lot sooner than I expected…or probably deserved. I was all of maybe 25 and a young woman a couple of years older than me was on probation. My supervisor really wanted to give her one more shot at turning things around and she figured it was a good way for me to cut my teeth on management.

I was given a set of criteria: Meet with her daily, create a set of goals, hold her accountable to those goals, check-in with our superiors once a week. I really wanted to succeed. I wanted to show that I could make difference, but also that I could help this young woman keep her job.

I failed. Miserably.

Failure Sometimes Equals Success

It turns out, the young woman wasn’t going to make it past probation, but no one told me that. I met with her once a day to review the goals she’d be given and to provide feedback on where to improve.

The first couple of meetings were hard—she did NOT want to be there (and, really, who can blame her?), and then she just stopped showing up. She was gone about two weeks after they’d “given” her to me to manage. I felt like I had let her down. It was really hard for me because I had failed. She not only didn’t make it, she didn’t make it through her entire probationary period. 

To my great surprise, though, I began to move up the ladder. Who promotes a person who can’t keep someone employed for more than two weeks? It turns out, it was just a test to see how I would handle myself; not to see if she’d stay. I guess I passed that test, even though I still felt like I failed her. Even so, every year on my reviews, I heard a lot of really great things and two worrisome things:

Learn to be more strategic and stop complimenting people all the time. You have to be critical and give people things to work on. If all you do is compliment them, they’ll never learn.

So what did I do? I stopped complimenting so much. Great management tool, huh? But I still had that feedback on my reviews. Was I not supposed to compliment AT ALL? According to my supervisor, no. The problem with me is that I really like to help people feel good about the work they do. I also really hate to micromanage. But I was expected, as a 20-something manager to be critical of people’s work, never compliment, and micromanage the crap out of them. 

Turns out those are three really bad traits for a manager—and I hated the person I was becoming as I tried very hard to develop those “skills” to fit my supervisor’s definition of a good manager. 

Instead, my growth kept stalling.

Managers vs. Leaders

What no one recognized in me were my leadership traits; they were too busy trying to fit me into their corporate ladder box. At the time, I, unfortunately, didn’t know the difference between managers and leaders or had the confidence to be able to say, “Yoo hoo! This isn’t the right fit for me!” Or, heck, stand up to what turned out to be a terrible supervisor. She was terrible. 

So what’s the difference, you ask? I love the way the Wall Street Journal defines managers vs. leaders:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

Fortunately, organizations need both managers and leaders; there isn’t a right way or a wrong way, though you can be a nice manager and still compliment people, which continues to be the thing people give me a hard time about (clients are forever telling me to be tougher on their teams…sigh). 

When I was starting out on my own and had lots of 20-something employees, I leaned back on the advice I got from that terrible supervisor of mine—mostly because I didn’t know it was terrible. I knew it wasn’t comfortable or easy for me, but I figured it was a growth opportunity. It wasn’t until someone, during their exit interview, told me what a terrible culture we had. That was not what I wanted to hear.

So I hired myself a leadership coach and he was amazing. To this day, when I have an issue I can’t get through on my own, I bring him in to help. One of the things he did was when presented with a question, would say to me, “What do you think?” 

I remember getting really frustrated with him at one point and blurting out, “If I knew what to think, I wouldn’t be asking you!” He laughed and said, “But if I give you all the answers, you won’t learn.” 

Fine. FINE! 

He was right, of course. Not only did it build my confidence, but it also allowed me the room to do the same with my team. Now, instead of bringing me problems without solutions, they’ll say, “So here is the deal…” and then they’ll follow-up with, “And I recommended we do X.” That allows us to have a conversation that is solution-focused and it’s significantly better than my telling everyone what to do all the time. Who has time for that? 

The Answer Lies Within You

When it comes to managers and leaders, there isn’t a right or wrong answer for you, as an individual. It’s just different styles. I would even argue the advice my terrible supervisor gave me wasn’t to develop a manager or a leader. It was just bad advice…because she was terrible.

The answer to which one you are lies deep in your psyche—and how you feel about both chaos and order. If you love process and stability and control; if you instinctively try to resolve problems quickly, you’re likely better suited to be a manager.

If you don’t mind chaos and you tolerate lack of structure; if you’re willing to delay decisions to better understand issues, you’re likely to be better suited to be a leader. In this way, leaders have more in common with artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers. 

Just like I was taught in my early career days, it’s not uncommon that we consider managers to be those who forecast, budget, and plan. They are the people who assign work, evaluate the work of their colleagues, and hire and fire. Leaders, on the other hand, are the ones who inspire and motivate people toward a common cause, but also are those who come in at the last minute, crap over everything you’ve done, and walk out for you to clean up the pieces. 

Both of those definitions are wrong, especially as we traverse this crazy year of the mother of all crises.

In today’s world, both managers and leaders have to know how to get the best out of their colleagues, how to develop culture when you’re not physically together, and how to recruit the best talent, no matter where they are in the world.

But organizations today are also required to take a stance on social issues and that means both managers and leaders must have a constant pulse on the feelings and goals of their colleagues. They must understand how their most valuable assets—their people—are dealing with everything this year has thrown at us.

Leaders vs. Managers

If I were to rewrite the list from the Wall Street Journal, based on several things in 2020, including Gen Z entering the workforce, taking a stance on social issues, and—you know—a global pandemic that is even worse now than it was this past spring, it would look like this:

  • The leader looks at how to adjust to a virtual workforce; the manager implements the changes
  • The leader sets the tone for taking a stance; the manager ensures it’s done legally and ethically 
  • The leader crafts new ways to work; the manager builds the processes
  • The leader checks in frequently to make sure people are OK; the manager implements extra benefits
  • The leader is vulnerable; the manager builds trust
  • The leader takes a long look at the future; the manager looks at the next 90 days
  • The leader asks what and why; thee manager asks how and when
  • The leader questions authority; the manager provides authority 
  • The leader considers how technology can change how they work; the manger builds the budget to accommodate 
  • The leader continually learns, both professionally and personally; the manager provides professional development allowances 
  • The leader does the right thing; the manager does things right 

This shows every organization needs both and where you might fit. It’s also OK if where you fit changes and evolves, both with what’s happening in the world and in the workplace. In some cases, I need order and less chaos because it’s the only thing I can control. During those times, that’s when I become more of a manager than a leader. And then there are years, like this one, that I allow myself to be comfortable with the chaos because I know great change is coming for our organization. 

The one thing to always remember, no matter which role you fit in right at this moment, is to not be a jerk. Be kind. Compliment people when they’ve done something well—and provide constructive criticism that allows them to grow. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. The answer simply lies in how you feel about chaos and order.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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