Managers v Leaders: Are Managers Plodders and Leaders Cool?

I consider myself a good manager and a passable leader. This should be okay but there is a certain anti-manager trend in the business world that is particularly prevalent in the Agile community. For example it has been common for Agilists to say "We don’t need no stinking managers " (Esther Derby: Rethinking Managers Relationship with Agile Teams).

It seems that leaders are somehow more cool than managers. Conventional wisdom says "Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things" (Buckingham & Coffman, 2001). And Jim Highsmith (2009), one of the Agile gurus, makes it clear that Leader = Agile and Manager = Non-Agile. Ouch.

Agile leaders lead teams, non-agile ones manage tasks.

Highsmith (2009) cited by Scrum Expert

All of which makes self-labelling as a "manager", particularly an "Agile manager", rather risky. But before I go off to find a job as a leader, for which I’m possibly under qualified, I thought I’d take a look at the differences between leaders and managers and assess whether common wisdom is, after all, very wise at all. To do that I’ll outline what a couple of other people say about managers and leaders and how that marries up with my own view.

My view = Inward/Outward Focus

As I said I think of myself as a manager. The way I describe what I do is "if somebody – CEO, Marketing, Product Management, Customer, whoever – says where we have to get to, then I take us there". I see my role as mobilising the team to tackle that challenge and deliver the goods. Often I don’t get to choose my team, so meeting the challenge involves getting the most from the people I have; using them in the best way possible. I see my role as operational and focussed inward towards the team and/or organisation. I have always worked with somebody who faced outward from the team and/or organisation, although their job titles are many and varied (CEO, Sales Director, Programme Director, Exec Product Manager, etc). I think, in the situations I’ve worked in, these people were the leaders. They decided the purpose of the whole exercise and were responsible for the much of the communication with the outside world. I was responsible for execution/delivery.

Conventional Wisdom

As I mentioned above conventional wisdom says "Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things" (Buckingham & Coffman, 2001). Buckingham and Coffman argue this type of maxim demeans the management role and casts managers as dependable plodders in contrast to the more sophisticated, executive level, leader.

I really don’t like this maxim. Aside from the implication that I’m a "plodder" it also suggests that people in leadership positions know what is "right", an assertion I know to be untrue. Many do, of course, but I’ve also seen quite a few leaders point teams in the wrong direction. But maybe that is more about the difference between good and bad leaders than about the difference between managers and leaders. There are bad managers too, of course.

Kotter’s View = Management of things

Kotter: Management vs Leadership has, what I consider, quite a mechanical definition of managers and leaders. Kotter emphasises the management of "things". Planning, controlling, organising – all things that I consider part of P3M so nothing too shocking there.

Management  – makes systems of people and technology work well day after day, week after week, year after year.

  • Planning & budgeting
  • Organizing & staffing
  • Controlling & problem solving
  • Taking complex systems of people and technology and making them run efficiently and effectively, hour after hour, day after day

(Based on Highsmith’s (2009) view that "Agile leaders lead teams, non-agile ones manage tasks" I’d say he shares a similar view to Kotter.)

In contrast, Kotter has leaders strategising, communicating, motivating, and aligning. Which sounds quite fun in comparison to the more mechanical responsibilities of the manager.

Leadership –  creates the systems that managers manage and changes them in fundamental ways to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid hazards

  • Creating vision & strategy
  • Communicating & setting direction
  • Motivating action
  • Aligning people
  • Creating systems that managers can manage and transforming them when needed to allow for growth, evolution, opportunities and hazard avoidance

I agree with all the words but I’m unconvinced by this distinction. I can’t help thinking that for a manager to do all the things Kotter has them doing – Planning, controlling, organising, etc – they also have to communicate, motivate, align, and create systems. So this manager-leader definition doesn’t really do it for me.

Finally Kotter believes over management kills companies. Or slightly more precisely organisations are born strong in leadership and die strong on management. A leader kicks off the endeavour. Success brings the need for people to run a big organisation effectively – the managers. However, over time, the managers outweigh the inspirational leaders and the organisation dies through lack of leadership. Quite a grim picture really and not one I want to contribute to.

How do organizations change over time?

When they are formed, organizations are often long on leadership and short on management. The savviest organizations gradually add management capabilities over time while still preserving that spark of leadership that led them to rapid growth in the first place. But inevitably, over time, the most passionate leaders move on to something else, while layers of management build up in their place. Organizations gradually transition to a complacent mentality, where management reigns supreme and leadership is in short supply.

Gallup View = Inward/Outward Focus

In their book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of The Gallup Organization present the findings of Gallup’s massive in-depth study of great managers across a wide variety of situations (Buckingham & Coffman, 2001). Some participants were in leadership positions and others were front-line supervisors. Some were in Fortune 500 companies; others were key players in small, entrepreneurial businesses. Despite the difference these managers shared a common insight and focus.

Buckingham and Coffman (2001) believe that the difference between managers and leaders is more profound than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. They differentiate the roles in terms of focus: inward and outward. And they believe that the main role of managers is to unleash the talent of the people working for them.

According to Buckingham and Coffman (2001) great leaders look outward, at the competitors, at the future, at alternative routes forward. Leaders focus on the broad patterns, looking for connections and cracks, then press home their advantage where resistance is weakest.

In contrast great managers look inward, into the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs and motivations of each person (Buckingham & Coffman, 2001). Managers focus on the subtle differences that suggest how to release each person's unique talent into performance.

Buckingham and Coffman (2001) found that "the manager – not pay, benefits, perks, or a charismatic corporate leader – was the critical player in building a strong workplace" (p. 25). They also found that great managers can turn the talent of their employees into lasting performance. Good managers are the reason people stay, and, conversely if you’ve got a retention problem then look at the managers. So "it is better to work for a great manager in an old-fashioned company than for a terrible manager in a company offering enlightened employee-focussed culture" (p. 28)

Talented employees need great managers. The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits, and its world-class training programs, but how long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor.

Buckingham & Coffman (2001), p. 4

Andy Conroy’s View = Impact on Status Quo

Andy Conroy, General Manager of BBC On-line, is a thought provoking and insightful speaker. At a recent meeting he summed up the difference between managers and leaders in two short lines:

Manager: Optimise the status quo

Leader: Change the status quo

Andy Conroy

With this Andy could be driving to the heart of the difference. Managers are optimising, or improving, what is there. Leaders are looking for the new direction.

Somehow, to me at least, Andy’s view manages to be consistent with all of the otherwise disparate views above. For example I can reconcile Andy’s view with my own about inward/outward focus. That goes something like … managers have to focus inward to optimise; whereas looking outward might give the leaders the inspiration for change.

I do suspect that it is possible to optimise the status quo so much that it has changed. But that, perhaps, is taking the idea too far.

Steve Denning View = Managers have to be leaders

I thought I’d drop in a thought from the author of Radical Management from his post Steve Denning: The Death and Reinvention of Management. Denning says:

20th Century thinking drew a distinction between leaders (who articulated goals and inspired change) and managers (who got things done). In the new role for managers, the distinction dissolves: managers have to be leaders. They must articulate goals, inspire change and remove impediments. It is the workers–those doing the work–who get things done.

Based on that I imagine Denning would also disagree with Kotter’s split between manager and leader responsibilities.


Okay, I’m terribly biased but I do find the evidence from Buckingham and Coffman (2001) rather compelling. I see considerable similarity between their view of the world and my own. Like me they differentiate the manager-leader roles in terms of focus: inward and outward. And they also see the manager’s role as mobilising the talent of the people on the team to achieve the goals.

Not surprisingly I reject the common wisdom that "Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things". I’m also not keen on the responsibility Kotter: Management vs Leadership gives to managers, i.e. managing things. This view ignores the important people management responsibilities of manager that Buckingham and Coffman (2001) highlight.

So no, I won’t be looking for a job as a leader. Instead I’ll go back to work as an agile programme manager and continue my attempts to unleash the talent of the individuals on my team to achieve our goals and assist them by removing impediments. Which, according to Steve Denning, makes me a 21st Century manager and leader.


Scrum Expert: Leading or Managing

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (2001). First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster.

Esther Derby: Rethinking Managers Relationship with Agile Teams

Highsmith, J. (2009). Agile Project Management (2nd Ed.). Addison-Wesley.

Kotter: Management vs Leadership

Steve Denning: The Death and Reinvention of Management