The Difference between Managers and Leaders and Why It Matters to You


/ 2013-11-11

In the early 1990’s I was working for a small software company in Seattle that developed mainframe database performance monitors. One day it was announced that we were being acquired by a much larger company. It was the first time in my career I had faced an acquisition and the horror stories I heard from co-workers were unsettling to say the least.

To be honest, the entire experience turned out to be relatively uneventful and even positive. I was able to work with great people who taught me a lot. I clearly remember one afternoon when my new boss chatted with me informally at a corporate retreat and simply asked, “Do you consider yourself a manager or a leader?”

Think about that for just a minute and ask yourself how you would answer that question.

I don’t remember my response but I’m pretty sure I stumbled badly. But over the years I have never forgotten the question. I have asked more than a few employees and co-workers that same question over the years. At the end of our visit, the new VP handed me a copy of an article by John Kotter that had been published in the Harvard Business Review and suggested it would be something good to read. It was titled “What Leaders Really Do.” I eventually lost the dog-eared copy of the article but I recently started thinking about it again as I have observed and read about the work we are all doing in Business Intelligence and Big Data.

The basic premise of the article is that management and leadership are different but complementary. In a world where things are changing constantly, one does not exist successfully without the other. I believe the following business quote from his article is one of the most telling I’ve ever read, even some 20+ years later.

Managers promote stability while leaders press for change, and only organizations that embrace both sides of that contradiction can survive in turbulent times.John P. Kotter, PhD, Harvard Business Review, “What Leaders Really Do,” 1990.

While small businesses employ nearly 50% of all private sector workers in the United States, and create about 75% of the new jobs, many Americans work for large companies. These global enterprises would become completely chaotic and out of control without good managers and proper management techniques. Every day managers face an enormous array of tasks and projects to be measured, studied, organized, fixed, planned and completed. Good managers are critical in today’s complex business environment.

Leadership, on the other hand, is all about handling change. Many businesses can’t just keep doing what they’ve done for decades and still thrive or survive. Examples of companies failing to change quickly enough are everywhere. And the more things change, more strong leadership is needed.

Goals vs. Direction

Many of us have been in goal-setting meetings, or their close cousin, planning meetings. Such efforts are part of a management system where, once goals are articulated, steps for achieving those goals are outlined. It’s one of the ways organizations manage complexity. These meetings exist to create orderly steps and processes to achieve desired business results. Setting direction is another matter.

Leadership is needed to set a vision of the future. This isn’t easy and can be a balancing act between short and long-term vision. Leaders need a broad range of data and business feedback to see relationships and be able to explain things. Some might call this fortune-telling. It is not that at all. Not everything needs to be new and innovative. Vision is not always about originality—it’s about better meeting the current and future needs of customers and the employees that make it all work.

Staffing vs. Aligning

Managers create organizational structure and find qualified people to execute the goals of the company. It’s a complex puzzle with components of human resources expertise, reporting relationships, training, interviewing, monitoring, communicating, delegating and evaluating. It’s all necessary and the better managers are at these things, the better the chance of organizational success.

Leadership, however, makes sure everyone is aligned, motivated and excited about the direction and vision of the company—and are committed to its success. Alignment must be communicated not just designed. A leader needs to be able to clearly communicate to the employees and others including peers, other departments, customers and suppliers. Vision needs to be understood by anyone who is any part of the vision—otherwise clarity is lost and alignment struggles. Leaders must be credible so homework is needed in order for the message to be believable. And finally, once the vision is clear and the team is motivated, leaders can now empower those people to go out and do their jobs. Let them learn from mistakes as long as they are staying true to the vision the leader communicated.

Analyzing vs. Motivating

Any good manager spends a big chunk of time monitoring results, looking at deviations and trends and solving any other problem thrown their way. Properly executed technology helps a great deal, and occasionally becomes part of the problem (e.g. dirty data), but things get done one way or another.

Good leaders keep people moving forward despite any obstacles that come up—regardless of the source of the problem. Sometimes this is done by tapping into the emotional and the basic values and needs of the individual employees in the group. Successful motivation gives people energy. I am sure there is not a single person reading this article that would disagree with that statement. You see this in a person’s personal life as well as their day-to-day work. Leaders articulate vision in a way that makes you feel like you are making a difference to those you serve—whether you provide a service or a product. When an employee feels that, it makes them feel important and motivated.

A good friend of mine, Britt Berrett, is the President of Texas Health Resources Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, and is the co-author of a book called, Patients Come Second. The book’s premise is that while patients and their proper care really are the most important goal in the hospital business, employees are the ones who provide the care. If they are happy and empowered (e.g. motivated), then the patients, who want to be number one on the importance scale, receive the care and love and support they deserve and want. Employees want to be valued. They want to be part of something bigger and something important. When that happens, everyone wins.

The Business of Business Intelligence

So, how does all that relate to the world of Business Intelligence (BI) that many of you are involved with every day? The answer: become a key part of your company’s leadership by communicating the data needed in order to see vision and direction with intelligence and clarity. It’s that simple.

Leaders need data to be effective in understanding and delivering powerful vision and direction for a company. They need data to see trends, deviations and even problems. It is no coincidence that many of the popular new visualization and analytical tools have powerful collaboration capabilities that make it easier to show impactful information within an organization.

Leaders want business feedback and ways to explain things that are going on inside the company—and in the outside world. They need to be able to see this and communicate it. BI and the tools and systems that are part of our business can help make that happen. You can get information from your customers and suppliers—and you can provide information to them. Data exchange is a big part of the future. All of this information and intelligence can make for better and more accurate vision and strategy.

Great information, in the hands of great people, equals quick and strong credibility for business leadership. Now, go help make that happen.

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