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The Difference Between Leaders and Managers

Posted by on May 23, 2012 | 13 Comments

This last week, the school Shelly and I used to work for suspended 60+ students after they rode their bikes to school. The students had a police escort and even included the mayor. The knee-jerk decision to suspend the students is a classic example of people placed in a leadership role acting as managers, not leaders. The story is in the process of being picked up by the national media. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes facts, the known details make the school’s leadership look really, really bad.

I’m a firm believer that schools, probably more than any other institution in our society, needs true leadership. So what’s the difference between leaders and managers? Here are a few thoughts:

Managers control behavior set rules then strictly enforce them. Think authoritarianism.

Leaders create a culture where the collective organization acts responsibly because they’re personally committed to the organization.

Managers “motivate” with fear or extrinsic rewards.

Leaders motivate by appealing to individuals’ drives by providing challenges that capitalize on intrinsic motivators.

Managers overreact.

Leaders consider the big picture before acting.

Managers talk.

Leaders listen.

Managers demand respect.

Leaders earn respect.

Managers have subordinates.

Leaders have followers.

Managers crave stability.

Leaders crave change.

Managers micromanage.

Leaders empower others to accept responsibility.

 Managers are obsessed with control.

Leaders are obsessed with creating passion.

Managers make rules.

Leaders break rules.

Managers have to always be right.

Leaders accept blame.

So how would I have handled the bike situation? Simple. Thank the students for taking the initiative to break the destructive prank tradition. Thank the police and mayor for helping make the event safe. Create a committee of students to organize the same event next year and empower them to consider issues like safety and traffic disruptions. Engage the local fitness or cycling communities to promote community involvement. In short, I’d leverage my position of power to turn this into a powerfully positive event that would generate a ton of positive PR for the school.

But hey, what do I know?


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  1. Andy Carney
    May 25, 2012

    It’s an unfortunate byproduct of too much focus on the bottom line. Line workers promoted to supervisor with no training on the softer, people-oriented skills. Supervisors promoted to managers, managers promoted to directors. All of them missing out on an amazing facet of professional development – the power to lead. I find gifting a book by Tom Peters or Tim Sanders is a great way to try to reverse that trend. Turning “training” into a lust for knowledge is a powerful motivator and helps me become a better leader as well.

    In my mind, these are the true challenges of the professional world.

  2. Mike Westermeier
    May 24, 2012

    Good post, totally agree with your assessment. Definite overly controlling reach by the school.

  3. chris
    May 24, 2012

    Leaders? Managers? All the same to me. Weirdos that like to tell other people how to live their lives.

  4. Bare Lee
    May 23, 2012

    How about a hybrid position, like managerial leader, or lead manager?

  5. Malva
    May 23, 2012

    I didn’t comment yesterday but my first thought was: you guys must be glad that principal is no longer your boss. I wouldn’t want to work for someone who makes such decisions.

    • Jason
      May 23, 2012

      We actually worked under a different principal. I’m quite certain our principal would NOT have taken that particular course of action. 🙂

  6. jeff
    May 23, 2012

    While I agree with the general sentiment, I don’t necessarily like the use of the term “manager”.

    I have a typical office job. I work with outstanding managers. I wouldn’t necessarily call them leaders, and it really isn’t their job to lead. Instead, they do the managerial work nobody else wants to. They present the spreadsheets to their bosses, they organize tasks and deadlines. They facilitate smooth operations, without actually leading anyone.

    • Jason
      May 23, 2012

      Different job descriptions would require different skill sets. Schools definitely need their principals to be leaders. Assistant principals… they could get away with being a manager and not a leader.

      As far as offices, the office managers may not have to be good leaders, but someone at the top of the organization had better be.

    • Glenn
      May 24, 2012

      I would say all leaders are managers, but not all managers are leaders.

  7. Ryan
    May 23, 2012

    Leaders inspire… Managers discourage…

    The principal should have used this possibly new tradition and asked for school administration involvement for next years “senior bike parade”. Instead she destroyed the opportunity for this and is now facing national humiliating news coverage. Instead of a class prank where they truly disrupted school or worse yet, destroyed school property, they made a few people late to work. I also didnt know that the school could puniah you on how you get to school except if its using the schools transportation (school busses). I can’t wait to see how this plays out…

    • jeff
      May 23, 2012

      I’m just baffled at how students can be suspended over something that didn’t happen on school grounds. They organized an event in which the mayor personally participated, and for that, they are punished!

  8. Brandon
    May 23, 2012

    What do you mean to put leaders in leadership roles… I thought you hired the best person for the job and make them do what you want them to do. Principals are not supposed to be leaders, they are puppets of the Superintendent and after watching him speak in front of a camera I can understand why his puppet said what she said. I loved the student who recorded her and made the principal look like a real witch. I was amazed at what the kids did and the fact they had a police escort says a lot. When they talk about the Mayor handing out donuts, I just thought he was throwing them in from of the car to keep the cops eyes on the road instead of the the girls riding in front of him… Sorry. Off beat, but true to form.

  9. Pete Kemme
    May 23, 2012

    Local news is all over this. Not sure the new Principal is going to make it out of it.