Monday, October 11, 2010

Leader or Manager: What’s the Difference?

There are many people who have a much better grasp of the difference between these two than I perhaps, and they’ve done a much better job delineating the difference between the two. For example, Changing Minds.Org has a really solid look at these two here. The folks at Legacee have a solid description of the difference between leadership and management as well. But perhaps the best way for me to distinguish between the two is to describe the two roles from my experience.

Several years back, I was a manager of a store in a national drug store chain. I was clearly a manager and not a leader. In fact, this retail chain did not want “store leaders,” they wanted “store managers.” My role as store manager began each day at 7:00 AM. I gathered the previous night’s receipts and register bags, and balanced the registers and prepared the daily deposit. Purely a mechanical task governed by company procedures with absolutely no room for initiative or independent thinking. Next, as my employees came in, I provided them with their register bags and sent them to their various work locations in the store. Then I went to the stock room and turned on the store lights, before walking to the doors and unlocking them so our first customers of the morning could come in. Everything I did was governed by prescribed procedures and company policy. Any deviations from that policy was discouraged. Even how the stock was placed on the shelves was dictated to me by the company. My job was to manage the store not. So, to me management is “taking care of stuff.” I have heard it called administrivia by some educators. Managers are not asked to take the initiative. They are asked to take care of the day-to-day stuff of doing business. And, in some cases, like my job with the drug store chain, initiative and vision were discouraged. The higher ups provided that for us. All we had to do was manage the store according to their vision of what a good drug store should be.

To me, leadership is quite different. It requires the ability to shift from “taking care of stuff” to almost seeing into the future. It involves not blindly following procedures and policies, but perhaps interpreting those for the good of those you serve. Principals have to enforce policy, but in that enforcement, they are always looking to the future.  As a manager, I simply told those who worked for me what to do.  Leadership is different. It is all about trying to influence people to carry out the vision and mission of the organization. As principal, I include staff in all major decision making. I think that’s leadership. As principal, there’s time when hard decisions must be made in the face of adversity. I don’t dump those decisions on staff. I deal with them. I think perhaps that’s leadership. As principal, there’s times when being open to staff ideas and secure enough to let them implement them is important. I think that’s leadership. Finally, being willing to do the same things you ask your staff to do, that’s leadership.

My own experience and definition of leadership continues to change. This is especially true when I take new positions that ask me to work with new kinds of people in novel situations. Truth be known, perhaps true leadership is being able to adapt your approach to situations as you encounter them. At this point my leadership definition continues to grow with my leadership opportunities.


  1. Thank you for supporting my quest in defining the difference between Management and Leadership. I was blown away with your suggestion of writing a blog post after requesting a tweet for our Developing Leaders Programme at Campsmount school in Doncaster, UK on this very topic.

    Your 'taking care of stuff' is a great succinct way of defining management. The aim of our programme fits well with your comment of "... there’s times when being open to staff ideas and secure enough to let them implement them is important'. We have some great staff who possess the qualities of leadership and I intend to present them with opportunities and freedom to implement their ideas.

    I also relate well to adapting your approach to situations as you encounter them. The need to 'flex' to different scenarios and people is key for me.

    Thanks for the article and your support

    Jamie Portman

  2. You are most welcome. I'm glad to help.

  3. my question is- what is the difference between principalship and leadership?

  4. In my thinking, there can be little difference or a great deal. Some "principalships" are little more than managerial positions where principal activity is governed so much by hierarchy and policy that there is little room for "leadership" decisions. Which I suppose that reveals one big difference between the two in my thinking: leadership requires decision-making that goes way beyond management. Maybe that's a start?