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The difference between a manager and a leader (hint: it's not what you think)

If you google the difference between a leader and a manager, you find tons of articles and blog posts raving "managers are copies, leaders are originals", "managers exercise power, leaders empower", "leaders have followers, managers have employees" or "leaders focus on building relationships, managers focus on achieving goals". You get the picture.

In my opinion, this is just nonsense. In reality, being a leader is an essential part of being a manager as long as you are responsible for performance. Anyone leading a team, regardless if they have a formal personnel responsibility or not, has two main areas of responsibility: managing structure and leading people. As Amiral Grace Hopper said: "You manage things, not people". As long as you work with living human beings who are expected to produce a specific outcome, you can’t focus on one without the other.

As long as you work with living human beings who are expected to produce a specific outcome, you can’t focus on structure without focusing on people

At its core, a manager is responsible for overseeing the work of a team and ensuring that it is being completed effectively and efficiently (= Structure & Process). This requires not only organizational skills and potentially technical skills, but also the ability to inspire, support and motivate others – not to mention building the psychological safety for people to share ideas openly ( = People & Performance). In other words, being a manager of any kind requires strong leadership skills.

Leadership is often an under-prioritized area for fast-growing organizations, despite the fact that a 33% team growth increases complexity in alignment with 400% (!). More people by necessity means more relationships to be managed. Not giving (often junior and inexperienced) leaders the knowledge and tools to navigate this complexity in an effective way can definitely be an expensive mistake. According to TechNation, 23% of scaleups fail because they don’t have the right team or lack experienced leadership.

Whenever I talk to a company that does invest in their leadership in a smart way that always warms my heart. BUT, several of the companies that I’ve talked to lately that do have some form of leadership training only focus their leadership initiatives on people with formal manager roles (i.e. who have personnel responsibilities) – neglecting everyone who leads for example a product team, and as such is responsible for team performance.

Can a team perform without people? No. By definition then, leading people is an intrinsic part of any kind of team leader role, whether you’re a product owner, project manager or something else. Even if someone else is "formally responsible" for these people from an employer perspective, you can't outsource the human element to achieve results.

So instead of getting lost in formalities or titles when you do any kind of leadership initiative, I suggest that you focus on the different responsibilities and give people the tools and knowledge necessary to maximize performance in all areas relevant to their role. Isn't that why you hired them in the first place? ;)

Regardless if you are formally responsible for personnel management, you need to have the skills to manage structure and process, and lead people and performance

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