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The Leader-Manager: Understanding The Complete Role

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 9, 2019

When exploring leadership in public administration, we often see the terms leader and manager presented as if they were unrelated concepts. There are many perspectives on these roles.

A modern public sector leader is someone who helps to build a collective vision, transforming minds, beliefs and values, seeking to be proactive, entrepreneurial and inspirational in the development of followers. As public sector leaders work within complex government and social systems, they must be effective followers to be effective leaders. They are mission, or value-based, focusing largely on efficacy. They seek to meet the current and evolving needs and expectations of the community. Leaders may be found at any level of the organization. Their strength often lies more in relationships with others than with their formal position or authorities. 

A modern public sector manager is someone who works with limited resources to achieve specific goals and objectives, often seeking both efficacy and efficiency, but more often focusing on the latter. Managers are engaged in activities such as planning, organizing, budgeting, coordinating and evaluating. They ensure the right people (i.e., the most qualified) have the appropriate resources (i.e., funding, material and authority) and the right direction (i.e, goals, objectives and oversight) to carry out their tasks. In combination with the tasks of others, this will achieve the organizational mission, serving the community in an effective and efficient manner. Managers may be found throughout the organization, with their authority based either on their level within an organizational hierarchy or on an assigned responsibility (such as an individual tasked with managing a specific program or project).

Over time, the term leader has taken on an almost spiritual meaning in the minds of many, while manager seems to be almost a disparaging term. Both of these perspectives are inaccurate. Viewed alone, each provides a mere glimpse of reality. To succeed, organizations need both leaders and managers, and we might not be approaching this well. If you reflect upon it, we do not structurally differentiate the roles. We expect incumbents of formal positions to be both leaders and managers, within the definition of each function provided earlier. Interestingly, it is common to see formal positions of authority filled using only assessments of management capacities—those selected for such positions are expected to be leaders as well, though we do not always prepare them for those challenges, or select them based upon their potential to lead.

Neither role is more important; without both, a public sector organization may face troubles. A leader who can inspire people, but who cannot manage resources is likely to fail due to ineffective or inefficient practices. A manager may be able to succeed in a stable environment, but they may not be able to recognize and adapt to challenges. Focusing solely on leadership or solely on management is likely to contribute to problems, if not system failure. Organizations need both leadership and management to succeed in a dynamic environment over the long term, so we need to develop or select leader-managers to meet all the challenges a public agency might face now and in the future. This will support greater success for the organization, the community, and those chosen to serve as leader-managers.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), served in local government for over thirty years, and currently serves as public administration core faculty at Capella University. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected].


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