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Managers vs. Leaders

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

By Caitlin P. Stein
February 19, 2019

All organizations must have a manager to oversee employees, operations, and everyday business functions. However, a manager who is also a leader will have a significantly greater positive impact on an organization than a pure manager will. The differences between a manager and a leader bear importance for the ability to provide a sound example of the best actions and methods for other administrators.

Several scholars have applied their definitions to the term leadership throughout history in an attempt to explain the nature of what a leader does, or is required to do. These definitions may be simplistic, or they may be so detailed as to provide specifics for a particular type of leader. Theories have been created to outline the facets of a successful leader. However, these theories are not always universal for public and private sector organizations.

Leadership theories continue to progress and change over time.  One of the original theories was The Great Man Theory, which assumes that leaders are born, not made.  Similar to The Great Man Theory is the Trait Theory, which again assumes that leadership qualities are inherited.  The next era provided the Contingency and Situational Theories, which both assume that leadership techniques and methods are based on situation or necessity.

Public and private sector organizations vary widely. The leadership theories used in a private organization may not transfer easily to a public sector organization for utilization, or vice versa. The 1980s stemmed a new interest in public service leadership, but most of work was directed toward a specific specialty in the profession. The result was a handful of practices that were either too narrow or too universal to be used by different positions throughout the public sector.

Many leadership theories are incomparable on the basis that public and private organizations seek different outcomes through different means. The complex nature of public sector leadership creates the need for a broader spectrum of the theory. Many of the contextual issues faced by the public sector are not issues that leaders of private organizations must consider. Also, leadership theories become challenging to formulate outside of individual departments or levels of leadership in public administration. This is based on the multifaceted nature of the position. In short, different skills are necessary for leaders depending on their level of leadership.

While some organizations may suffice with a manager to oversee daily activity, a leader often completes this task and beyond. Typically a leader has more zest for their position. They possess unique traits and characteristics which allow them to deal well with people and environments. Although it is possible to hold both leadership and management positions as a sole entity, it is essential to distinguish between the different competencies.

Administrators must be able to recognize which role they are taking in order to maximize results efficiently. The differences between managing and leading create many requirements for the ability to lead. Public administrators must be transitional to cope with different situations and needs. Not all conditions need the same action as the one prior.  Leaders are often agents of change, risk takers who are oriented towards long-term results.  Managers typically maintain the status quo, control risk, and seek immediate results.  Both managers and leaders are important to all organizations, but it is necessary to understand the person who will coach and lead, and the person who will direct.

To be a competent leader one must have a sound context of leadership, or understanding of the social, political, economic and technological ideas that are taken for granted, as well as potentials for change. The leader will also need to have an understanding of using personal assets for the greater good. A leader must be visionary and able to create and communicate shared meanings of forums as well as organizational leadership skills. A leader must be able to express themselves to the public, as well as to the agency, and keep their leadership focused on creating (or maintaining) an effective organization. Team leadership plays a vital role for all leaders in the public administration field. Each leader should also have the ability to share leadership duties via policy entrepreneurship. Situations, where leaders do not share tasks create a micro-managed department or agency.

In conclusion, several theories and functions have been researched throughout the history of public administration to narrow the topic. With the area of public administration remaining as large as it is and growing, a scholar must not simplify the theories and functions of a successful public administrator to the point where the information has become useless. Managers and leaders are not synonymous. Although sometimes a manager can be a leader, and vice versa, each one requires a specific advantage over the other depending on the situation. Sharpening the skills of both a manager and a leader in the future would be beneficial to any public administrator.


Author: Dr. Caitlin P. Stein, DPA. Caitlin Stein graduated with her Doctorate in Public Administration in 2017 and currently supervises the legal team with a locally owned finance company. She is a mother of two boys, happily married and a freelance writer in between. [email protected]

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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.

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