Leading the Managers and Managing the Leaders

It’s rare to attend a course about leadership and not find a traditional activity along the lines of “what are the differences between a leader and a manager?” Why does this topic repeatedly appear and so what…?

While pursuing my MBA, I had two elective modules to go for so I chose leadership and entrepreneurship. In the first class of the leadership module, the instructor asked us the same question “What are the differences between a leader and a manager?” and we took an hour to brainstorm, jot down our thoughts and present our ideas in front of other group.

The second must question that always comes in similar contexts is “are leaders born or made?” having the same question with similar responses and debates as some people will support the idea of leaders are leaders by nature whereas others will be fans of the idea of how to make leaders. Both groups have their own legitimate and logical reasons for their conclusions.

The last must question is “are leaders always good or do we have bad leaders?” Given that this question is the easiest one as all attendees will have the consensus on who the good leaders and bad leaders could be.

Whether it’s in an academic context or training course lasting a couple of days, the same questions arise regardless of the audience’s background or even their level of understanding, experience or responsibilities.

The point I want to highlight here is the “so what?” part. What is the added value in knowing those differences, and how will it help us to build on to change firstly ourselves and secondly our perceptions of others? One may argue that knowing the differences between leaders and managers helps us in directing our resources and efforts to only have leaders, as after that question we always have the feeling that leaders are much better qualified and charismatic than managers.

Assumingly on one hand we agreed that leaders are born, would we ask the most famous geneticists to work on a formula that supports nations delivering leaders and find the proper combination of parents around the world to make the formula work? On the other hand, if we reached an agreement that leaders can be made, our role would be listing the proper characteristics and creatively tailoring convenient programs for those whom we anticipate their high potential of being future leaders?

The problem here that some specialists claim is that a leader is by far much more important than a manager. These specialists show the latter as a traditional employee whose vision is very short with a reactive action, someone who always prefers the status quo and cares only about results with a limited tendency towards risk. Unlike managers, leaders are gifted to have a long-term vision with a proactive action and eagerly look for challenges with their focus on achievements as they are always risk takers.

Having such dilemmas makes us think of the advantages of those questions and their viability. Are those questions made to let us think loudly and enhance our arguing skills playing the devil’s advocate role in a way, or are they asked just for the sake of following the norm?

When it comes to practical life, it’s not that easy to have this sharp segregation between managers and leaders, admitting that both are really needed in the workplace and the characteristics of both are required in different situations.

Moreover, if we agree on the superiority of leaders over managers, how can we ask leaders to report to managers? You will find a sales team leader reports to a sales manager in an organization and you may again have a call center team leader reporting to the call center manager. It’s not an infinite distinction I would say.

I believe our need to learn from leaders is much more necessarily required than answering the before mentioned questions. The conclusion here is to build on lessons learnt from leaders’ success stories in order to support and enhance people’s cognition in terms of successfully leading teams, organizations and even nations.

In a nutshell, I would argue that we may have fundamental characteristics for both personalities and moreover, some well-known leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were also being managed by their people and their needs. So, we have to admit that we still have mangers who manage leaders and leaders who lead managers.

By the way, I had a training last week about teambuilding and my first activity was to let the groups think about a unique aspect: “What are the differences between a leader and a manager?”


Yasser Bahaa is the Head of Registration and Admission at Emirates College of Technology. He has a broad experience of over 16 years in banking, training, consultancy and organizational excellence. Yasser got his MBA from University of Bradford and is currently pursuing his PhD in Organizational Change and Change Management. He's a program leader at University of Bradford in Dubai coaching and mentoring MBA students and supporting them to run their studies smoothly through guidance and regular sessions. Recently he has been certified as the third Investors in People (IiP) Specialist Adviser in the Arab World.

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