The false dichotomy of "leader vs. manager"

The false dichotomy of “leader vs. manager”

Posted on Feb 6, 2014 | Tags: | 2 Comments

The false dichotomy of "leader vs. manager"

When we first developed Teamworks, we had a small debate about whether to call our customers “leaders” or “managers.” Ultimately, we decided to go with “managers,” because it was important to let you know that Teamworks isn’t just for folks who live in the C suite. Yet something about that decision has always felt unsettling. It plays into the misguided idea that you can’t be both.

At SYPartners, we’ve never been fond of false dichotomies. (You’ll often hear our project teams exclaiming, “It’s an AND!”). But even we have been guilty of using the old “leader vs. manager” trope in our consulting work. It’s an easy provocation — “Are you a manager…or a leader?”

The problem with the “leader vs. manager” dichotomy is that it does everyone a disservice. It casts leaders in the role of disconnected visionary and reduces managers to the part of pragmatic administrator. It gives each side permission to ignore the responsibilities of the other — or to outsource those duties to someone else.

Being the CEO shouldn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to the growth and development of your direct reports. And just because you’re in the middle ranks of a company doesn’t mean that your team isn’t looking to you for big picture thinking and inspiration.

We believe that people who are responsible for work beyond their own — and responsible for the people who do that work — should strive to be both leader and manager. Yes, it’s an AND.

Great managers should lead in a way that…

  • Elevates the team’s ambition
  • Removes obstacles from the team’s path
  • Pushes the team to defy gravity

And great leaders should manage in a way that…

  • Balances aspiration with practicality
  • Takes the nitty-gritty details into account
  • Produces clarity and coordination

We know it’s a tall order. Few people are naturally gifted at all these things. But let’s aspire to see “leader” and “manager” more as two sides of the same coin than as entirely different forms of currency.



  1. Michael Watts
    February 6, 2014

    Another great blog which hits the nail on the head, as they say!

    A few years ago when starting on my current career, I attended a number of courses on management, or leadership, or management and leadership, and at each one this same issue came up.

    And since then, I have never fully understood why you have to separate them. I get the ‘managers push and leaders pull’ concept; however, in practice:

    – as a manager I need to lead the individuals within the team and the team itself to be constantly improving,
    – as a leader I need to manage the individuals within the team and the team activities as a whole so that is does that.

    You can’t do one without the other.

  2. Teamworks
    February 6, 2014

    Well said, Michael! It’s all about finding the perfect balance of the two.


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