Last week I saw a presentation where the concepts of leader and manager were compared (supposedly). The presentation showed two variations of a picture with some workers in ancient Egypt (or so) pulling a huge block of stone with a rope. In the first variation, a “manager” was sitting on the stone block, giving orders. In the second variation, a “leader” was pulling along with the workers, pointing out the direction and cheering his people on.

From these two pictures, it is pretty clear which of the two you would rather be if you are in a managing position. “Leader” sounds positive and hip, while “manager” sounds corporate and bureaucratic. The leader works alongside his people, while the manager sits behind his desk and barks orders. The Web is full of variations of this theme in images and articles, like this nonsense that claims to compare leaders to managers, but actually compares good managers to bad managers. The author simply calls the good managers “leaders”, and the bad ones “mere managers”.

Overall, a lot of articles give managers a pretty bad name. If you want to hang with the cool kids, apparently you have to avoid being a “manager” and, by all means, be a “leader” instead.

Apples and oranges

I do not agree with this black-and-white painting. I think it is naïve, because the work that managers do - if done well - is very important and deserves more acknowledgement than that. Leaders are not better than managers. Managers are not better than leaders, either. They are two different things, and hence we should not compare them in terms of “better” and “worse”. Instead, let us try to make a distinction:

A leader provides and communicates a vision for the product or for the organization, and convinces people to buy into this vision. Her attention is directed outward: This is where we are now, this is where we want to be in the future, this is where our competition is, and this is how we can beat them.

A manager creates the environment in which the work that needs to be done can be done. Who does the work? That’s right, it’s people. Management, except in very rare cases for which I don’t even have an example, always has to do with people. Therefore, if you want to do good management, you have to do good people management. The manager’s attention is, to a great part, directed inward: These are the people we have, with their unique combination of skills, knowledge, and talents. Now, how can we assemble the most effective teams with them, and how can we make everyone even better?


I have been quoting from First, Break All The Rules again and again, and I don’t want to create the impression that it’s the only book I ever read, but I do think there are a lot of good thoughts in it. Here is what the authors have to say about companies that want to have “leaders” instead of “managers”:

“If companies confuse the two roles by expecting every manager to be a leader, or if they define “leader” as simply a more advanced form of “manager”, then the all-important “catalyst” role will soon be undervalued, poorly understood, and poorly played.”

What do they mean by the “all-important catalyst role”? In their view, the manager’s job is to turn each employee’s unique talents into performance for the company. To do that, you first have to identify these unique talents. You have to be a keen observer, and probably you have to have a lot of conversations. Once you have identified an employee’s unique set of talents, you have to match these talents with the company’s goals, so that she can use them to create value. Only if people can do what they do best every day can they reach true excellence. Otherwise, there will be a lot of mediocrity, and lower job satisfaction.

This might mean that the manager finds new roles for some people, or has two people partner up whose talents complement each other. It can also mean optimizing the various team setups and work assignments. These things do not happen by themselves, which is why the manager has to act as a catalyst that enables and facilitates these changes. To stay with the chemistry analogy, a great manager mixes, re-arranges, and refines the compounds that make up the company - namely, its people - in order to create increasingly improved versions of it.

Juggling positions

This is nothing you would typically expect from a “leader”. Leading is about goals, vision, and strategy, and about fighting in the trenches alongside your people, which are all important things. And yet, making the best use of your employees’ talents to create value for your company is crucial. Imagine a football team (to people in the US: soccer) where you swap some positions: The goalkeeper plays midfield, a striker is put in defense, a left winger is swapped to the right side, etc. Even though everybody still plays the same sport, the team’s performance is very likely to drop.

In, say, software engineering, things are not much different. If you put somebody who excels at fixing bugs under time pressure in the core architecture team, you might not use this person’s full potential. If you put a thorough, deep, but rather slow thinker into an incident response team, you are probably in for some disappointment (and possibly disasters). Make a world-class JavaScript architect write nothing but handlers for click events, and you are missing out on amazing things he could pull off for you. Even though everybody has been trained (or self-trained) to create software, and is actually creating software, the team as a whole might operate far below their full potential.

Since the manager manages people of many different functions and talents, a lot of them will surpass him in one or even several areas. Still, the manager can be of great value for their personal and career development. Nick Malaguti illustrates this by remarking that even the best athletes in the world have coaches. Nobody would ever say that a coach is useless because the athlete is much better at the sport than the coach, and the coach does not even play actively any more. The same thinking can be applied to management:

“Just like coaches, management can add a ton of value. The best managers will help you manage your career, help you round out your skill set, provide feedback and recognition of your effort and impact, and take things off your plate that get in the way of doing your job. They will see things you can’t, and have the experience to help you overcome new challenges.”

It’s not about making people work

I think these aspects of being a good manager - being a catalyst, and discovering how to turn people’s strengths into performance - are valued too little by the broad public.

Instead, a widespread public image of managers is - think back to the picture I described at the beginning - that their job is just to make people work, and that they sometimes use nasty methods to do that. Well, yes, if you happen to be a slave in ancient Egypt, it is likely that your manager is not as empathic and well-meaning as you might hope. But since you are reading this, it is more probable that you are a knowledge worker who uses creativity and needs undisturbed concentration to do a good job, and that your output will not be improved by someone yelling at you and hitting you with a whip.

Therefore, if you are a manager, your job is not to “make people work”, but something else. In Peopleware, Tom DeMarco tells us an anecdote from his days as a developer. On a cold winter day, he was dragging himself to work even though he was sick, because an important demo was coming up. Sharon Weinberg, who was managing this project, noticed the state Tom was in, immediately went to get him some hot soup, and buoyed up his spirits. Asked by Tom how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do, she replied: “Tom, this is management.”

DeMarco concludes his anecdote with:

“Sharon knew what all good instinctive managers know: The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.”

I think you can hardly put it any better than that. One of your most important jobs as a manager is to create and preserve a productive work environment for your people, and to get obstacles out of their way. It’s not about carrots and sticks.

Producer and director

I hope we can, by now, agree that management and leadership are different jobs, which are, no doubt, both important. Unfortunately, neither good managers nor good leaders fall from the sky. Couldn’t somebody do both jobs at the same time? Certainly. But can you be really good at both? Maybe, but I would expect this to be rather rare.

While thinking about this question, I remembered the relationship between “producer” and “technical director” that Frederick Brooks describes in The Mythical Man Month (Chapter 7, “Why Did the Tower of Babel Fail?”). Brooks describes the producer as the person who scurries from A to B to C, communicating and aligning with many parties and making sure things get done. He assembles the team, divides the work, creates the schedule, acquires resources, etc. His communication happens mainly outside the team.

The technical director creates the design to be built, or the architecture, identifies its subparts or subsystems, specifies interfaces, sketches the internal structure of subparts, and provides unity and conceptual integrity to the whole artifact. Her work is almost completely technical, and her communication happens primarily within the team.

Brooks also discusses the possibility of the producer and the director being the same person, but comes to the conclusion that this is only workable for small projects with three to six people. His first reason for this conclusion is that the roles are very different, and require different talents:

“[…] the man with strong management talent and strong technical talent is rarely found. Thinkers are rare; doers are rarer; and thinker-doers are rarest.”

The second reason he gives is that, on larger projects, “each of the roles is necessarily a full-time job, or more”. If you have to spend a large portion of your day away from your desk in order to align with dozens of people (producer), you will have little time for quiet, high-concentration design work (director).

Schizophrenic superstars

The producer-director pair is a bit different from the manager-leader pair. Nevertheless, both pairs are examples of complementary roles, and there are some analogies. As it is rare to find a good producer and a good director in the same person, I think it is rare to find a good leader and a good manager in the same person. Probably, there are some superstars that have been blessed by nature and education with all the necessary talents and character traits to be excellent at both jobs, but when you think about it, some of these traits are somewhat conflicting, so that these superstars must be a bit schizophrenic.

For example, a great people manager must be a good observer and listener to notice people’s moods and their reactions to different situations, news, etc. For a leader, too much empathy can be an obstacle. They need an almost fanatic conviction that their direction is the right one, and too much consideration for the needs and concerns of others can weaken their drive, or make them lose focus.

Moreover, leaders have to “dream big” in order to inspire their people. They have to come up with long-term goals and a vision. It can be harmful to be too detail oriented at that stage. In contrast, managers have to take details very seriously. They have to create plans, assign work, know what everyone is up to, and make sure everything stays in sync. If one branch of the execution tree gets delayed, they have to know in detail how to cope with it - not just in broad strokes. In other words, the manager is the person who takes care of the time-consuming and annoying details, so that the leader doesn’t have to, and can instead dream big and provide inspiration. Captain Kirk could not have been such a successful leader of the Enterprise without Spock and the others sweating the details for him.


Summing up, I think the work of “management” deserves more acknowledgement than it often gets, and, in growing organizations, you cannot do without it. While a great leader adds tremendous value by providing inspiration, direction, strategy, and vision, a great manager can provide just as much value by making the best possible use of people’s talents, by hiring the right talent if it is not already there, and by shaping the organizational environment so that people can deliver their very best work. Leaders cannot replace good managers. They should find good managers if they want their backs kept free.