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Are You a Leader or a Manager?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jerry Newfarmer
July 21, 2015

Ronald Reagan was a classic leader, someone whose soaring rhetoric and vision inspired both followers and critics. Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was a true manager who viewed the presidency as a series of problems to be solved – a vision that was too narrow for some critics and refreshing for others.

Politics aside, if you head an organization – whether it’s an information technology (IT) department, a city government or a county agency – you probably identify more closely with one or the other, seeing yourself as either a natural leader or a born manager. Even though most people lean in one distinct direction, the success of any organization depends on competence in both roles at the top. Managing and leading require different skill sets and mindsets. Knowing the difference and striving to improve in both roles will help your own personal performance and that of your organization.

The best leader has well-developed management skills; the best manager has well-developed leadership skills.

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A leader is a big-picture person, the human side of a successful organization. He or she sets the tone, shapes the environment, establishes goals and motivates people. Leaders often can imagine an alternative future for their organization and work to make it a reality. A manager makes sure the processes of the enterprise function well. He or she takes the tools at hand and uses them to accomplish results and enforce accountability for the team. Managers tend to like their visions written down and posted on a wall so they can check off accomplishments and measure their progress.

Leadership has emerged in recent years as a more widely admired trait. We value those who can inspire others to achieve. Management, on the other hand, has gained a negative connotation as the tedious practice of making other people do something they may not want to do. But a detail-oriented manager who loves process and performance measures can still inspire others to dream big and accomplish much. And a leader who generates tons of exciting ideas won’t be very successful unless he or she can translate them into concrete action. Staffers in any department or agency will do best when they report to someone who excels at both leadership and management.

As John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and authority on leadership, explains in his collection of essays called “What Leaders Really Do”:

The point here is not that leadership is good and management is bad. They are simply different and serve different purposes. The fundamental purpose of management is to keep the current system functioning. The fundamental purpose of leadership is to produce useful change, especially non incremental change. It is possible to have too much or too little of either. Strong leadership with no management risks chaos; the organization might walk right off a cliff. Strong management with no leadership tends to entrench an organization in deadly bureaucracy.

The secret to being more effective is to know your own tendencies and work harder on the things that don’t come naturally to you.

If you’re a born manager:

  • Leave the to-do list for a moment and think instead about the image you’re projecting to the people you work with. Employees will take their cues from their leader’s behavior: an accessible, approachable leader will encourage employees to do their best, while an aloof leader who seems to sit around issuing edicts can drag down an entire enterprise.
  • Set aside regular time to think about the big picture for your organization. Where do you want it to be six months from now? Five years? Figure out what’s holding it back and brainstorm strategies to move it toward your vision.

If you’re a natural leader:

  • As you’re generating great ideas, follow them with the business processes needed to enact them. Who will take responsibility for carrying out your innovation? Include them in the planning and see how they can improve your idea or offer constructive criticism of it.
  • Go back and do a post-mortem on an initiative that didn’t work. Did the idea behind it miss the mark, or was there a lack of execution? Use the example to create a plan to execute future initiatives, or you’ll risk being seen as someone who can’t turn an idea into reality.
  • Find a few people on your team who are in a position to give you honest assessments. Some leaders tend to get carried away with their own enthusiasm and can benefit from a reality check. Avoid those who are consistently negative, but find colleagues who can give an honest appraisal so you’re sure to consider all angles.

Whatever your innate instincts are, you’ll be most effective if you let them shine and also push yourself to develop the stuff that doesn’t come naturally. Whether you’re a natural leader or a born manager, the people you work with and the organization you work for need both your leadership and your management skills to be successful.


Author: Jerry Newfarmer, who served as city manager in Fresno, San Jose and Cincinnati, is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. Jerry is a national leader in local government performance management and he has led his firm to nationally recognized expertise in municipal development review processes, strategic planning, budgeting and finance and organizational analysis.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

3 Responses to Are You a Leader or a Manager?

  1. Jerry Newfarmer Reply

    July 31, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Thanks, Robert. I think it’s true that different specializations have different cultures. But I think the principles of providing a vision and a roadmap for getting there are the same. Sometimes it’s a matter of framing the vision in words that colleagues can hear and understand.

  2. Robert L. Morrison Reply

    July 23, 2015 at 11:15 am

    This was a great article to understand the difference between a leader and manager through some specific definitions.

    However, I have found some differences in getting a project off the ground in the Information Technology arena.

    Sometimes it is difficult as some resist change in Information Technology Departments. Some have a hard time recognizing new ideas and giving them a chance to be designed and implemented. The minute you want to discuss with them something new and get their feelings, barriers go up.

    In Information Technology you must have an organizational thinking of how the organization (Enterprise) works and what the managers and CEO need. What someone says is the correction needed, falls far short of what is really needed as they do not see the big picture and other areas it effects.

    Thank you for writing the article as it certainly raised many ideas in my mind.

    I would like to participate in a discussion about this entire matter and hear various sides of the issue.

    I am a former CIO and Senior Level Manager in the local government sector.

    • Jerry Newfarmer Reply

      July 31, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Thanks, Robert. I think it’s true that different specializations have different cultures. But I think the principles of providing a vision and a roadmap for getting there are the same. Sometimes it’s a matter of framing the vision in words that colleagues can hear and understand.

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