Managers and Leaders: Are They the Same or Different?

We hear it all the time: He’s a manager. She’s a leader. We seem to use the terms manager and leader interchangeably. I know that I have done so. Yet these terms do mean different things. How so? And does it matter?

In his seminal article “What Leaders Really Do,” John P.  Kotter clearly lays out the differences between leadership and management. He writes that neither is better than the other, nor is one a replacement for the other. He says: “Rather, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.” He goes on to say that many organizations are “over-managed and under led,” which is a situation not unfamiliar to many in the working world. Successful organizations make the distinctions clear while simultaneously seeking out opportunities to develop and guide those with leadership potential.

The Idea in Brief

Kotter details the primary tasks of the manager and the leader. His main point? Managers promote stability while leaders press for change, and only organizations that embrace both sides of that equation can thrive during change. In today’s higher education IT environment, complexity and change are constant — a fact that makes the ideas in Kotter’s article worth exploring.

Determining where you stand in terms of your role as a leader or manager makes you an asset to your organization. Just as it is equally important to understand that there is no great mystery to being a leader. It is a fallacy that leaders are born to that role. Leadership skills can be acquired and honed. Just like management skills. Ideally each role is interdependent. Yet it’s important to appreciate the differences.

So What Do These Roles Look Like in the Organization?

By looking carefully at functional responsibilities, we can see the distinctions that a manager and a leader bring. If the organization truly understands the value of each, it will have a greater chance to operate effectively and efficiently in service of its mission to the campus and to its students and faculty.

What Leaders Do

Leaders produce change. They also create future viability for the organization by aligning people to the vision. This requires getting buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, communicating broadly, and providing motivation and inspiration to staff.

  • Provide Direction
    • Establish the vision and emphasize its importance to everyone throughout the organization
    • Develop the strategies to make attainment possible
    • Cope with the change that the strategies have produced, change that is almost constant
  • Align People
    • Communicate the direction; make it come alive for people
    • Engage people in implementation by helping them to see where they fit
    • Build commitment, especially when projects are big and will be realized only over time
  • Motivate
    • Hold up the banner and wave the flag . . . and do so often
    • Coach and empower staff at all levels of the organization
    • Recognize and reward success; though really simple to do, this sometimes gets overlooked

A leader achieves strategic results by positioning the organization to add value to the campus. He or she accomplishes this by devising new directions and strategies and, in doing so, creating new organizational capabilities. None of this can be done without good managers and staff at all levels. Leading people to excellence, collective achievement, and fulfillment is no small task, but it is eminently rewarding.

What Managers Do

Managers must deal with complexity, and there is a lot of that in information technology. In fact, organizations manage complexity by planning, budgeting, staffing, clarifying jobs, measuring performance, and problem-solving — especially when the desired results do not go according to plan.

  • Plan
    • Set goals and operational plans
    • Submit budgets
    • Allocate resources
  • Organize
    • Create and establish structure to accomplish plans
    • Communicate the plan and keep reinforcing it
    • Develop staffing and assign responsibilities by finding the best fit between people and tasks
    • Develop policies, procedures, and systems to monitor progress
  • Coordinate and Control
    • Monitor results
    • Measures results against plans
    • Facilitate problem-solving, which is a continuous cycle

In short, managers get operational results and excellence by producing a degree of predictability and order using systems and processes. Yet they must depend on the activities of staff to perform their jobs effectively. Managing people can be both rewarding and challenging.

Building a Culture of Leadership

Kotter also believes that leaders have a responsibility to find and develop those with leadership potential, and he does not discount the importance of networks — both formal and informal — as key components in any leadership initiative. While recruiting good staff is a first step, giving people opportunities to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from failures as well as from successes early in their careers helps to develop a wide range of skills and perspectives. Mentoring and formal training can also help staff make the most of opportunities to develop and enhance their leadership and management capabilities. All of this learning also broadens a person’s perspective about the true nature of leadership and management and about the skills it takes to effect change and work with complexity. Another added benefit is that it builds a valuable and valued staff, and that’s no small detail to be overlooked or set aside because organizations fundamentally rise or fall on the strength of the staff.

An Interesting Exercise

All leadership and management roles are essentially a juggling act between three fundamental activities: leading (strategic aspects of the position); managing (working with others to get results); and doing (carrying out the task). Those in such roles need time to think and plan for future organizational needs, together with the realities of today’s technological change and complexity, along with the people who work for them. To meet these challenges, leaders and managers must assess how they spend their time balancing these competing activities.

Take a few moments to reflect on the following two questions:

  1. Today, what percentage of your time do you spend on the following activities? (Your total must add up to 100%.)
    • Leading
    • Managing
    • Doing
  2. What percentage of your time would be desirable for you to spend in each of the following activities? (Again, your total must equal 100%.)
    • Leading
    • Managing
    • Doing

Identifying how you spend your time is key to organizational success, as well as to your own professional growth. How did you do? Now that you’ve undertaken an honest assessment of how you spend your time in these areas, think about three things that you can stop doing and another three things that you can start doing to keep that balancing act in harmony and, perhaps, to move you closer to your desired career path.

Opportunities for Further Exploration

Does this discussion pique your interest? The EDUCAUSE Institute offers a variety of programs on such topics to enhance your success as a current or future IT manager and leader.

The following two programs meet in a compressed format but yield high returns in terms of knowledge-building and peer-networking experiences:

  • If you are a new manager or have been managing for up to two years, register for the New IT Managers Program at Connect Miami (April 6–8, 2016).
  • If you have been managing for more than two years and up to five years, register for the Management Boot Camp also at Connect Miami (April 6–8, 2016).

For a more immersive, week-long experience, the following residential programs may be for you:

  • If you have three to five years of managerial experience and want to augment your skills to enhance your effectiveness, register for the Management Institute, which will be held in Austin (June 27-July 1, 2016).
  • If you are a new CIO or CISO or are actively interviewing for these or other executive-level positions, consider applying for the Leadership Institute. This program will meet in Austin (July 18-22, 2016). The application period is open now.

Management and leadership may be distinct roles, but there is a natural blurring of the lines between the responsibilities and skills that each requires. Kotter’s article provides a jumping off point for consideration. Take this opportunity to read the article and reflect on its message. As a manager or leader, you need to do so. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts.


Joan F. Cheverie is Director of Professional Development for EDUCAUSE.

© 2016 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.