Manager or Leader?

By Lisa Earle McLeod

JHC-May16-iStock_000080397935_LargeAre you a manager or a leader? One way to quickly identify where someone sits on the manager-leader spectrum is to look at their language.

The language of a manager is task-oriented. It’s about what needs to be done today, and how to do it. A leader’s language is more purposeful. It’s about where you’re going in the future and why you need to get there.

Manager types can be successful in traditional command and control environments where assigning and measuring tasks is of high value. But these organizations rarely produce innovation, nor do they inspire emotional commitment from customers and employees.

Said another way, managers can replicate the status quo. But if you want to create competitive differentiation and build a team that cares, you need leaders.

There are a few key ‘tells’ that reveal whether someone leans toward manager or leader:

How they communicate results
Managers tend to focus on lagging indicators like sales and productivity metrics. These backward-looking measures keep a manager’s team mired in the past, with little vision for the future. When managers say things like, “Quarterly sales are down, we need to close deals faster,” the fire drill begins. Leaders, on the other hand, look at leading indicators like customer impact. They analyze emerging trends. They say things like, “Our newest customers are buying for different reasons, let’s unpack this and figure out how to leverage it.” As Warren Bennis wrote in his classic 1989 book On Becoming a Leader, “The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.”

How they assign work
Managers assign tasks. Leaders communicate desired results. A manager will tell an employee, “Get x and y done in exactly this manner by Friday at 10:30 a.m.” A leader is more likely to say, “Our client needs this, what’s the best way to accomplish it?” Managers focus on what to do and how to do it. Leaders explain the big picture; they tell people why things need to be accomplished and allow their team creativity about how to get there. Managers are maniacal about adherence process; leaders are relentless about achieving results.

What they reward
Managers reward obedience. Leaders reward innovation. Managers say things like, “Susan is our best employee; her order entry is flawless.” A leader is more likely to say, “Bill is the bomb, he looked at our order entry and realized the screen prompts were taking up too much of our customers’ time.” A manager rewards people for implementing decisions made from above. Leaders encourage independent decision-making, knowing that some will fail.

Managers applaud compliance. Leaders inspire commitment.

Words matter. Inspiring words alone will not make a company great. Tasks must get done. But it’s the words of the boss that tell the employees why the tasks matter. Language is how the boss lets people know what’s important and what’s not. The words of the boss are repeated across the team every single day, and those same words are shared around dinner tables at night.

You can be a manager or you can be a leader. It takes work to adjust your language. In case you’re wondering whether it’s worth the effort, look back at the above list and ask yourself, which person would you rather work for?


Lisa is a sales leadership consultant, and author of Selling with Noble Purpose. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfier hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces. She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches. Visit www.LisaEarleMcLeod.com