Are You a Leader or Manager?

Leadership chart

Most school districts claim to want to move from good to great, become world class, become a 21st century district, or fill in the slogan blank.  Getting past the cliches (and the fact that we’re 14 years into the 21st century already), effective implementation of these transformations/progressions requires progressive thinking and leadership.  Doing things the way you’ve always done them is not going to vault you to a new status; it will maintain your current status.  As a matter of fact, maintaining while others around you vault forward, relatively speaking, equates to falling behind.

Whether leadership positions are in classrooms responsible for kids, or offices responsible for adults, people look up to you everyday.  Leadership positions tend to be occupied by leaders and managers.  Some differences are:

Leaders… Managers…
empower manage
support creativity & divergent thinking teach “the right way” & make sure everyone knows what to think
trust look over the shoulder
delegate tasks of great responsibility delegate tasks of minor responsibility
ask questions tell the correct answer
seek knowledge from everyone have prior knowledge to impart on everyone
relate to people at work make sure people relate to their work
find big picture solutions provide quick fixes
focus on a few priorities take on many projects at once
assume responsibility and apologize place blame
don’t ask others to do anything they don’t do themselves ask others to do things they don’t do
do what’s right do what keeps them out of trouble
reflect to improve reflect to pat themselves on the back
create a climate of candor intimidate others into agreement
follow through on their word are too busy to follow through on their word
earn respect by giving it expect respect because of their title
find solutions find problems
inspire dishearten

The truth is, the style shows.  Kids know it, parents know it, colleagues know it.  A progressive environment requires a progressive leader.  At the end of the day, leadership is either the reason things do happen, or the reason things do not happen.  Whether it’s kids or adults, challenge yourself as a leader to remove obstacles for them, unlock invisible shackles, eliminate excuses, offer full support, empower, and be the reason things do happen.

I would love to hear more characteristics or your thoughts on leaders and managers.

48 comments for “Are You a Leader or Manager?

  1. Ann Labak
    December 11, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    I’ve heard that a l leader is the original and a manager is a copy,; a leader is his own person and a manager is the “classic good soldier”; leading is about what and why, while managing is about how and when. However, even though a leader and a manager may not possess the same characteristics, in many instances it is beneficial to have both.

    • December 12, 2013 at 8:51 am

      Thanks for your feedback, Ann! Great points. What/why and how/when–>I like that! Thanks for reading!

  2. December 12, 2013 at 7:13 am

    I think that your take on management is bit negative. I believe that every good leader manages and that every good manager leads. See my thoughts here:

    • Tracie
      December 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      I agree with you, Steve. Depending on the climate, situation, and other factors, sometimes items from both sides are necessary and productive. I think there needs to be a combination of the two, maybe with more emphasis on the left. When someone is too far on that side, it can seem that they are out of touch with what is really happening in the daily classroom grind.

      • December 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm

        Thanks for reading, Tracie! You make a great point about being in touch. I appreciate your comments!

    • December 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks for reading, Steve! I appreciate your response, and thank you for sharing the thoughts on your post. I enjoyed reading it and believe you make some good points.

  3. Mark McKee
    December 12, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    I would simply re-title the column headers; Management with Leadership and Management without Leadership. Very nice work, Sam.

    • December 12, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      Love it, Mark! That nicely sums up the viewpoints that have currently been shared. I think we’re all saying the same thing, but in different ways, and your new headers hit the Mark (pun intended ;)). Thanks for reading and contributing.

  4. Mack
    December 12, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    I, too have to take exception to your characterization of management. It seems overly negative and out dated. What makes the comparison wrong is that you list some good behaviors of “leaders” highlight the negative behaviors of bad managers. I would argue that GOOD managers are leaders and that leadership is empty without good management behaviors. It’s also not a zero sum game. Good managers ask questions and provide answers. They find big picture solutions and provide quick fixes to emergency situations. They focus on a few priorities that are often realized through many smaller projects.

    Your descriptions of “leaders” is also a bit amorphous. You say leaders empower. Just how do they do that? What does that behavior look like? I’m not saying I have this on lock but I’d like to think I “empower” people by letting them know the big picture, explaining their role, giving them parameters, and articulating the desired result. Then I get out of the way and let them achieve results. I also provide feedback and areas for improvement if needed.

    You also say leaders inspire. In reality you cannot “inspire” any one because to inspire is to “breathe in”. It is something they have to do. You can behave in a way that takes their breath away causing them to inspire (or be inspired). This still takes action on your part. Then there are the issues of “trust”, “support”, “create” and “earn respect”. Maybe it’s because I’m a social scientist but these need to be described in observable terms. Leadership is about what you do. Sure, some people garner respect or inspire peopled based on their good looks and charm but that soon falls away if it’s not supported by action. So to be a leader you have to do things that require your leadership. There is a word for leaders who don’t do things; they’re called royalty.

    • December 12, 2013 at 11:58 pm

      Wow, Mack, thank you for reading and for your reply! The context with which I was reflecting was in moving an organization (in this case a school) to an elite level. I appreciate that you were inspired by the post and shared your passion for leadership 🙂

  5. December 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Hey Sam – as has been stated above, somewhere along the lines, management has been given a bad “wrap”. What I have learned is that you absolutely need to be effective in BOTH. You cannot be an effective leader without being a sound manager. If you cannot manage a budget, a timetable, and so many other structures that occur in a school, the opportunities for leadership will be squandered.

    One of my mentors, Bruce Beairsto, said to me “leadership and management are yin and yang… you need both. Management builds the structures to make the house; leadership makes it a home”.

    I think the point you are getting at is that if we are solely managers, we fail to be effective principals. I like what Mark has stated with the idea of restating the dichotomy: leadership and management vs management alone.

    Good conversation!

    • December 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Agreed, Chris! Thanks for sharing the words of wisdom from your mentor. Thank you for reading and contributing to the conversation!

    • December 14, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      Reading Chris’ comment reminded me of this post and his comment on it:
      The reality is that you need to be good at managing the operational aspects of a leadership role or you can’t sustain the great things on your Leadership list above.

      The real struggle is not being bogged down by the management needs and letting them define your role. With all my reflection on this topic… I still struggle with this, as shared in my later post on Leadership and Capacity:
      “So how do I fit it all in? … I want to have the capacity to effectively meet the managerial aspects of my leadership position AND also provide effective educational leadership. So how do I build capacity here? What are people doing to help them make their role as a leader more about what they want it to be? What strategies work? And how do people ‘find the time’ to do the things they really want to do?

      • December 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm

        Great share, David! I like your points of relationships, focus on learning, and providing opportunities for others. Couldn’t agree more that all educators must be leaders! I also agree with the value of challenging our thinking in developing our stances. Thanks for reading and contributing to this awesome discussion!

  6. Beverly
    December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I’m always glad to see a fellow take a stab at differentiating leadership from management. Well done, Sam! In response to other comments, I see some of the descriptors might be reworded, such as “look over the shoulder” to “I got your back” and “place blame” to “hold others accountable” (to remove weak links.) I am a leader; the list describes me perfectly. However, I have been a very poor, tired, and frustrated leader without a talented, knowledgable, detail-oriented, brave, organized, loyal manager. Leaders lead, and managers manage. To try and be both a leader and a manager leads to ineffective leadership and poor management.

    • December 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      Thanks for your take, Beverly. I appreciate it. It certainly can be a big job! Thank you for reading!

  7. December 14, 2013 at 3:31 am

    Excellent article. See my blog post from a few months ago on the same subject – Manager or Leader – which best describes you?

    • December 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

      Thanks for reading, Mark! I see you have incorporated ying and yang to describe the relationship. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and post!

  8. December 14, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    I agree that leadership is critical and that we can’t only manage if we want to be effective but there must be a balance of both. One of the main disagreements I have with your list is that managers find problems and leaders find solutions. I agree with Csikszentmihalyi & Getzel: “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution attained.” Being a problem finder is a critical leadership skill and precursor to being an effective solution finder.

    • December 15, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks for reading, Beth! You make a good point about the relationship between finding and resolving problems. Thanks for sharing and contributing to this great conversation!

  9. December 15, 2013 at 2:05 am


    Your post is spot on. I think your post is spot on. Managers lack vulnerability and transparency. They focus on the what and leave followers to wonder why. Leaders focus on the why the what is important and allow followers to determine how to do the what.

    Does this make sense? Great ideas I plan to share with others.

    • December 15, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      Yes, totally makes sense. I like your inference to the relationship aspect between leaders and followers. Thanks, John, for reading and sharing!

  10. Richard Ruffin
    December 15, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    There is no real difference with leadership and management when approach is constrained by governing policies and practices that dictate direction and formation. Additionally, titles, job design, and job tasks are increasingly becoming blurred and undefined.

    • December 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      Thanks for reading, Richard. Great point about governing policies and practices, as well as the increasing ambiguity of titles, design, and tasks! I think this brings to light the intended focus of my post. I believe that managers respond to those policies and practices differently than leaders, and those responses tend to define either maintaining the status quo or moving the organization to the next level. I believe the same is true of responses to the ambiguity of titles, design, and tasks which can lead to frustrated confusion or liberating action-taking. Thanks for sharing and being a part of this conversation, Richard!

  11. Alex
    December 17, 2013 at 1:39 am

    A long time ago, a mentor told me to keep vision and tasks in their places. They are interdependent. Vision is leadership centered on relationships; mangament is centered on the tasks to make the vision real. Thanks for making me think.

    • December 17, 2013 at 2:54 am

      Thanks for reading, Alex, and for sharing your mentor’s words of wisdom!

  12. Michael O'S
    December 18, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Sam, I don’t think your view of management is “negative” as others have stated. I viewed your table as how to deal with people and your “leadership” side is, in my opinion, the right way. I was taught both in the US Marine’s and in my ed leadership classes this simple statement: “You lead people and you manage things”. I believe if you keep this in mind you will not go wrong!

    • December 18, 2013 at 1:20 am

      Lead people, manage things…interesting take. I like it! I’m not sure I’ve heard it put that way before. Thank you for reading, sharing, and contributing to our conversation, Michael!

  13. Missy Kennedy
    December 18, 2013 at 2:05 am

    Sam, you are very positive in your response to those that disagree with you. You will go far in life. Missy

    • December 18, 2013 at 2:13 am

      Thank you for the compliment, Missy, and thanks for reading! 🙂

  14. December 18, 2013 at 10:42 pm


    Thanks for putting this post out there. It has caused some needed reflection and reaction for those of us who lead and manage. I agree with your point that there are heads of organizations who encourage growth and success, and there are those who discourage creativity and inhibit people from doing good work.

    I would like to add to this discussion by sharing the work of Joseph Rost who examined a vast amount of literature on the topic of leadership. In his book “Leadership for the 21st Century,” he gave definition to the terms leadership and management that I think are very applicable to school leaders. He describes both as relationships. Leadership is (paraphrasing here) an influence relationship among leaders and followers for the purpose of causing real change in the world. Management is also a relationship but it is among managers and their subordinates for the purpose of coordinating their activities to create specific products. Management typically occurs along hierarchical lines in an organization and is often top-down. Leadership can occur among many different people in an organization and is multi-directional. No matter the titles of people in an organization, leadership can occur when one influences another to produce significant change.

    Rost also cautioned readers to not put leadership and management opposite one another. Leadership is not the ideal state as compared to management. In the context of schools, we need good management (according to Rost’s definition) as part of leadership. Management activities produces schedules that work, rules that support our staff and students, bus routes that run on time, and pay checks to be accurate and timely. Effective management is important for a school to run well. Without management, can leadership (a relationship that leads to real change) really occur? Leadership is needed in our schools as we are asked to significantly change our practice. Leadership brings about mutual purpose and inspiration to allow change to happen. The conditions that allow leadership to occur are predicated on good management already being in place. Without good management, leadership just can’t happen. I certainly see leadership as key for school success in the 21st century, but it can’t happen without all that management brings.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Curt (school principal in Wisconsin)

    • December 18, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      This is GREAT, Curt! Thank you for sharing the interconnectedness of the two, and similarities & differences. I like the definitions you’ve shared–>hierarchical and multi-directional relationships. Your response seems to sum up much of the discussion we’ve had, and has led me to a new thought. Many of the responses shared say or seem to imply that leadership (however it’s defined) needs a base of management (however it’s defined). My new thought is: Does this imply management can occur without leadership? I think this is what Mark McKee touched on by offering column headers: Management with Leadership and Management without Leadership. I would love to hear others’ thoughts.

  15. December 22, 2013 at 2:47 am

    I had to wince a few times when reading b/c I can see myself falling into the manager role to often and forgetting the power of leading. I don’t think the terrms have to be polar opposites, but I love how you parallel the choices born out of providing value to others against the choices based on selfish ends. Great post.

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks for reading and sharing, William! None of us are perfect, but if we are conscious about the differences and focus on kids, staff, and community, we will find ourselves in good shape 🙂

  16. Jody C.
    December 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I have heard many important and valid comments about both leading and managing. I agree with the importance of being able to do both lead and manage. I also think that we need to look at the term “distributed leadership”. Being a leader doesn’t mean that we have to be the only one who has the vision, empowers others, creates change, etc.. In order for others to be invested and truly make schools go from “good to great”, we have to work as a school community. The comment on the left side, delegate tasks of great responsibility, is important. It is also important for teachers and staff to be creative and develop goals for the school that are meaningful to them and their work with students. Just delegating a task of great responsibility is not enough. We have to be sure that the task is meaningful to the individual. Professional Learning Communities is something that I see as a valuable process that empowers teachers to take on great responsibility. It also allows teachers to work on tasks that are meaningful to their work with students. PLC’s create change, focus on student learning, and empower teachers.

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

      I agree with the significance of PLC’s and their impact on change, student learning, and teacher empowerment. Thank you for reading and your contribution to the discussion, Jody!

  17. January 2, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Hi Sam,

    I’d encourage you to take a bit broader view of management and how it’s an essential part of making change happen. See:

    All the best,


    • January 2, 2014 at 10:07 pm

      Happy New Year, Doug!

      Thanks for sharing your post. It seems like you went as passionately in the management direction as I did in the leadership direction. Perhaps it’s tom-ay-to/tom-o-to? It sounds like we are in agreement in our value of the action of moving forward when it comes to making change happen 🙂

      Thank you for contributing to our discussion!

  18. Scott
    January 2, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    Sam……a few things.

    First, you are very gracious when responding to those who disagree with your post. This is one of the great characteristics of leadership. One must be able to have an opinion and accept the opposite views of others. Opposite views allow us to look deeper into our own views and explore the views of others. As a new principal, I am always interested in what others have to say and what others think.

    Secondly, I like how you draw parallels between leading and managing. The truth of the matter is that I sometimes find myself managing instead of leading. I want to become a more efficient leader as I continue to be an effective manager. Managing is essential but being an effective leader will allow the management of a school to move forward with efficiency and fidelity. I served in the United States Marine Corps for 4 years and often times my leaders only knew how to manage and were afraid to lead. Apologizing for a mistake or treating someone with respect was often seen as weak and therefore rarely used. However, one of my best role models was a Marine who served for 27 years. He was always in leadership mode and allowed others to assist him with management. He used to say, you can’t have order without respect of others and personal responsibility. Your post struck a cord with me and I think it was right on point! Thank you

    • January 2, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks for contributing (and for the compliment), Scott! Your point about your role model allowing others to assist him with management is a great one! I think a person’s to do list is very telling about their style: some look at their list and ask, “What on here are things that ONLY I can accomplish,” then delegate the rest. When delegating, people with that style often find that:
      the task not only gets done, but gets done more efficiently than if done personally,
      they have more people in the organization wanting and capable of being delegated to,
      it frees up time to dedicate to the “only me” items on the to do list

      Thank you for reading, Scott!

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