When it comes to the subject of people management, every organisation aims to create high-performing teams and one of the key contributing factors to success is leadership and management. We know that good leadership and management is vital to gain the greatest contribution from our people, but how do we define a good leader and how does a great leader differ from a great manager?
We all have vivid personal experiences of leaders and managers and can recount stories of great bosses and those who were not so great, but articulating exactly what characteristics make a great leader or manager is hard.
Who is the best manager you have ever worked for? Try articulating concisely what made them great?
I bet most people find it much easier to describe the characteristics of their worst manager rather than their best and can offer countless examples of their failures and how truly awful they were to work for.
It is much harder to state clearly what makes a great manager so great. They just are!
But to be a good manager or leader and to improve, we need to understand what skills are most important, what we want from our leaders and what our teams need from us.
The difference between leadership and management
Leadership and management are different in nature.
A leader sets a vision and the direction for the team and motivates each individual team member to join together with others as one team to achieve the set vision. People follow leaders.
A manager manages the process of the work, working with the individuals in the team to ensure they are able to make their contribution in an efficient and effective manner. A manager drives for order and accountability, creating improving systems and processes.
Individuals within the team will be motivated to follow a good leader and to work with a good manager.
Characteristics of a great leader
A great leader inspires people and motivates them to act, setting the direction and the vision of where they are heading, even if they are not certain how they will get there.
Good leaders are often charismatic, engaging and outgoing, but there is, of course, an exception to every rule.
They tend to cope well with chaos or a crisis situation and are able to determine a way forward and articulate that to others.
Leaders are good at handling change and developing confidence in others to initiate the changes.
They create ideas and engender enthusiasm to explore new opportunities and, in doing so, may be perceived as rule-breakers. You could argue that great leaders are of a more creative nature.
In a crisis situation such as the all too familiar Covid pandemic, a leader will motivate the team to commit to working hard even when exhausted and build confidence that the goal will be reached despite the way forward lacking clarity.
Characteristics of a great manager
A manager manages the work of whatever nature and, by definition, requires a deep understanding of the operations of the business or team.
A good manager will be analytical, assessing how things are done and looking at ways to change and improve either to create greater efficiency or to achieve certain goals.
n almost any work situation, a good manager will also need to a be a good people person, able to relate to individuals on a one-to-one basis and as a team.
Managers are good at creating and improving systems and process. They aim to create order and to simplify. They are problem solvers who desire stability and control.
The skills of leaders and managers are different, but to manage a business, clinic or team, the person in charge needs to have both leadership and management skills to some degree.
Examples of great leaders
During the Covid crisis, we have experienced first-hand some very high-profile leaders and managers in action. I will avoid naming any individuals to avoid tipping into a political debate, but I am sure it has become obvious to us that some individuals are better at leadership than management and vice versa.
Much has been written about great leaders over the years and, in time, I am sure we will read about the great leaders during the Covid pandemic.
Any historical list of the greatest leaders is likely to include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi and I am sure we can all name a few others.
Each of the individuals I have included had a cause they were so passionate about, that their name became synonymous with that cause. Take, for example, Martin Luther King’s cause which is well known as his ‘dream’.
If we review the leadership characteristics of these individuals to look for consistencies that help us understand what makes them great leaders, in each case we see a relentless determination, incredible will power, courage and unfailing motivation even when tested to breaking point.
As leaders, they each won the hearts and minds of their people, with Gandhi being remembered as ‘the father of his country’. In summary, we can deduce that key traits of a great leader are a clear cause, the ability to communicate that cause well, to create an enthusiastic following and an unfailing determination to achieve it.
Great business leaders
It may feel more relevant to us to consider leaders within the business community, and any current list of the ‘greatest business leaders’ is likely to include the following people.
Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple;
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook;
Mary Barra, chairman and chief executive of GM Company;
Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and Tesla;
Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway;
Bob Igor, executive chairman of Disney;
Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix.
There are some big names here, some of whom have become almost celebrity figures, but that does not detract from their capabilities as great leaders.
Again, we can review their leadership styles to understand what makes them the great leaders they are recognised to be and look for consistencies that allow us to learn from them.
Interestingly, the themes here differ from our earlier examples of great leaders where their commitment to their cause seemed to be the greatest factor.
While I am certain that each of these business leaders has a cause or a vision as we tend to refer to it in a business setting, but most of what is written about their leadership style is their approach to creating and managing their teams.
They surround themselves with exceptional people and they empower these people to be innovative and take ownership.
They work hard to understand the strengths of the individuals within their teams and allow them to apply those strengths.
They support and encourage, acting as an enabler and they praise their team members for their great work, making a point of not taking credit themselves.
‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do’ – Steve Jobs.
What also seems to distinguish them most is their decision-making process. They claim to make very few decisions themselves but encourage their teams to make the decisions, trusting their ability to do so, which has the added impact of ensuring their teams take ownership. They are clearly defining themselves as leaders and enabling their teams to do the managing.
Leadership and management are different and require different skillsets. We may feel that some people were born great leaders, but, in reality, their skills have been developed by life experience and formal training.
It is possible for anyone to improve their leadership and management skills and the best starting point is improving self-awareness.