Manager or Leader, who are you? What differentiates them, and what you can learn from their decisions?

Arvind Mehrotra
17 min readSep 7, 2023

Professionals often get entangled in a web of rigid regulations in today’s fast-paced corporate climate. They become rule enforcers rather than innovators, simply quoting regimens without understanding their intent. More regrettably, they detach themselves from emotional relationships, becoming solely driven and goal-focused.

This robotic adherence to rules often results in dysfunctional work environments, stifling creativity and choking innovation. Policies or procedures can only encompass some scenarios, leading to inefficiencies and complications. Crucially, a lack of adaptability can cause an organisation to lose relevance as circumstances change, but internal rules do not evolve accordingly.

However, the landscape can change if professionals approach norms as evolving guidelines instead of unchanging laws.

- By genuinely understanding regulations’ intent, purpose, and objectives,

- They can identify gaps between the context and meaning of policies.

- Consequently, rules can be updated or adjusted to align with changing organisational needs — fostering agility.

- They ensure the retention of core values in decision-making.

It defines authentic leadership — as deriving inspiration from fixed senses rather than a restless mind –

contributing towards organisational success.

Further expanding this concept –

- Management focuses on organising people to achieve goals through budgeting, structuring, and staffing,

- Leadership inspires, motivates, and guides others towards a shared vision.

- Leadership is about adapting to future needs,

- While Management ensures tasks are in focus for effective execution.

This balance is crucial for an organisation’s enduring prosperity.

So when you consider adopting novel approaches to Leadership or Management within your organisation, remember — sticking to rules may keep operations running smoothly today, but understanding and adapting these rules will ensure you stay relevant tomorrow!

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6, Verses 33 & 34, paraphrased that the Mind is restless, inconsistent, and turbulent, while senses are anchored and fixed. Managers tend to be driven by Mind; however, on the other hand, Leaders are driven by Senses, which I have distilled over the last 35 years.

“Management” and “Leadership” are often used interchangeably but differ. While both are important for the success of an organisation, they have distinctive styles and approaches.

- A post on “PeopleMaps” explains that leadership is about inspiring, motivating, and guiding others towards a common goal. Management organises people to achieve organisational objectives through budgeting, structuring, and staffing.

- A post on “Asana” states that leadership is about the future, while Management is about dealing with the present. A leader inspires others to achieve results they did not think possible.

Let us examine the style and approach differences between managers and leaders:

Is Decision-making about power, or does it need to be contextual?

In the context of decision-making, there are two schools of thought:

- one that believes decisions are around the power to give and take and

- the other that all decisions are contextual.

The Manager holds the former school of thought, and the Leader subscribes to the latter school of thought.

Decision-making in Management is selecting the best course of action from multiple alternatives. It is a crucial aspect of Management that involves identifying problems, gathering information, analysing data, and choosing the best solution. According to a Gartner article,

- Effective decision-making must be connected and continuous to drive good outcomes in today’s complex and disrupted business environments.

- The report suggests that decision-making in distributed and remote setups must be networked and known at all hierarchy levels (strategic > tactical > operational).

The sharing of data and insights across organisational boundaries is critical.

Effective decision-making is a crucial skill for leaders to possess. It involves assessing a situation and determining the best course of action for the organisation.

- Leaders must empower everyone in their organisation to make sound and ethical decisions, whether in making choices, negotiations, or work contexts.

- Studies also suggest that intuitive decision-making relies more on the Mind’s parallel processing functions, while deliberative decision-making relies more on sequential processing. It is essential to leverage implicit knowledge, which guides intuitive decision-making relaying to the conscious Mind through effect or unconscious cognition.

Therefore, while decisions are around the power to give and take, others believe that all decisions are contextual. Effective decision-making requires what is essential, who or what is involved, reframe the question or objective; leaders need to rethink how to leverage data and analytics to improve decision-making.

Is Execution Driven by Control or by Motivation?

The dichotomy between management executives’ control and motivation-inspired actions by leaders is essential to any organisation’s structure. As such, it becomes crucial to delve deeply into these two elements for enhanced clarity.

Management represents an amalgamation of strategic execution and administrative duties with a singular objective: achieving predefined organisational goals.

- Infused with responsibility, Managers stand like sentinels at the posts to regulate processes ranging from budget allocation to seamless communications or

- even nimble restructuring in dire times, aiming to steer the collective workforce towards fixed milestones.

Their domain is a complex labyrinth of fostering team dynamics, ensuring efficient utilisation of resources, and monitoring employee performance, amongst other things.

Juxtaposed against this backdrop, leadership paints an entirely different picture focussed primarily on the human ethos. It is less regulation, more inspiration, less policing, and more guiding.

- In the olden days, the good Leaders were the imagination, like whispers behind the curtains or hands unseen guiding towards shared commemoration.

- Leaders are more visible; they create a conducive work environment that nurtures growth and innovation and fosters bonds beyond stark professional relationships.

- Through encouragement, support, empowerment, and recognition, they inspire team members to outdo themselves in their quest for excellence.

They see ahead into the future, spotting opportunities before they become apparent to others, setting free the power within individuals to unlock potential they never knew existed.

In summing up the distinction drawn here between Management and Leadership — while a manager might carefully strategise to amplify ROI (Return on Investment), a leader charges into unchartered territories, rallying around their troops to tide over uncertainty and risk.

Is the Problem-Solving approach led by building order or streamlining the chaos to find the change?

Managers, equipped with a blend of analytical skills and practical experiences, are often proficient at addressing complex scenarios to initiate solutions and work breakdown approaches.

- Their skill set revolves around organising tasks, fostering an environment conducive to productivity, and effectively reducing disorder into neatly defined sequences.

- They thrive in presenting holistic solutions that establish a systematic order within their teams.

However, it is essential to note that despite their initiative-taking role towards problem-solving, managers can sometimes resist change — particularly when it presents disruptions or shakes the stability of structures they appreciate.

On the other hand, we have leaders who flourish in identifying group dynamics — the interactions, conflicts, and synergies within their teams.

- It is not just about recognising these elements but endeavouring to understand them deeply, which often leads to uncovering hidden variables contributing to chaos.

- Yet, in this chaos, they see problems and opportunities for growth and transformative change while preserving the imaginative spark.

For instance, consider a design firm undergoing a significant project transition. The Manager may reorganise staff duties, coordinate work schedules, or implement new software to streamline operational challenges.

The Leader unravels patterns in team behaviour, leading to unproductive chaos; it needs better communication or more trust within smaller working groups.

- By addressing these underlying issues, fostering open dialogue, or building cohesion through team-enhancing exercises

- they can help alleviate the immediate chaos and initiate sustainable change, fostering creativity and promoting innovative capacities within their team.

Understanding both these roles contributes significantly towards managing problems effectively; establishing order from chaos is ably done by managers where change through understanding team dynamics lies in the hands of our leaders. Both are interconnected movements toward reduced friction and improved workflows — making workplaces more efficient and dynamic.

In conclusion, both order and chaos have their place in the world, and it is crucial to recognise the value of each. By focusing on problems that need to be solved while embracing the chaos that comes with change, we can create a better future for ourselves and those around us. In problem-solving, it is essential to balance order and chaos. Too much streamlining can lead to a rigid mindset resistant to change, while too much confusion leads to a lack of clear thoughts, actions, and execution. We must create an environment fostering creativity, innovation, and growth by embracing order and chaos.

Are plans executed by maintaining the Status -Quo or capitalising on the Opportunities?

Managers are responsible for directing and supervising employees to achieve specific goals and objectives. They are accountable for ensuring the work completion on time, within budget, and to the required standard. They also manage resources, such as people, money, and equipment, to achieve these goals.

On the other hand, leaders are responsible for inspiring and motivating employees to transform and improve results. They create a vision for the future and communicate it to their team members.

They also encourage creativity and innovation, build stakeholder relationships, and promote a positive organisational culture.

While there is overlap between the roles of managers and leaders, there are also significant differences. In short, managers are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, while leaders are more focused on driving change.

According to a post on the Harvard Business School Online’s Business Insights Blog, the terms “leadership” and “management” are seen as similar and thus are often used interchangeably. Still, there are significant differences between the two. While managers focus on implementing processes to achieve organisational goals, leaders are more intent on thinking ahead and capitalising on opportunities.

Are the communication tactics Direct or Indirect effective?

When we observe communication style, leaders often:

- Communicate directly yet respectfully, reinforcing this approach consistently, frequently, and tactfully.

- Directness in communication fosters an environment of transparency, helping to minimise misunderstandings and misinformation while strengthening trust between leaders and employees.

- It encourages open dialogue, promoting constructive feedback for enhanced productivity and a positive workplace culture.

Contrastingly, managers might exhibit:

- a more indirect form of communication, potentially stemming from a desire to maintain authority or avoid confrontations.

- This infrequent or less transparent way of communicating could create a sense of uncertainty within the team, hampering morale and the dynamics of collaboration.

A critical aspect that leaders and managers must navigate impeccably is the delivery of unfavourable messages. Examples may include announcing layoffs, rejecting job applications, reporting lost shipments, declaring price hikes, or reducing benefits. These instances necessitate careful handling and skilful language use as such news will inevitably meet resistance.

Though individuals might prefer a blunt disclosure due to its clarity, research suggests that most situations need a more diplomatic method. Substantiated arguments combined with empathy can help alleviate potential discontentment while demonstrating respect for employees’ emotional states.

In conclusion, their communicative strategies diverge significantly despite the overlapping tasks administered by leaders and managers. While leaders strive towards openness and direct exchanges fostering trust and inclusivity, managers may adopt less frequent and indirect communication tactics. Regardless of their chosen strategies, both positions underline the importance of effective communication in managing teams successfully within any business framework.

Summarising the Differences between Managers and Leaders.

The following are the takeaways from our above discussion:

- Managers tend to focus more on control, rationality, and a sure path,

- Leaders focus more on context, change, and growth.

Continuing what Scholar Warren Bennis lists, critical differences between managers and leaders in his book “On Becoming a Leader”. These differences include:

● The Manager focuses on administration; the Leader focuses on innovation.

● The Manager likes maintaining order; the Leader organises and builds upon chaos.

● The focus on systems and structure is of primary concern to the Manager, while the Leader’s primary concern is on purpose and people.

In summary, while managers and leaders play essential roles in an organisation, they have different approaches to achieving organisational objectives. Managers focus on controlling resources and optimising processes, while leaders focus on inspiring and empowering people to work together towards a common goal.

Daily working issues: Do the decisions of Managers and Leaders differ?

It is time to examine how leaders and managers resolve daily working issues. The issues that I have identified are as follows:

- Workload distribution and maintenance

- Unfair work conditions

- Mismatched values

- Poor team relationships

It will go a long way to make different perspectives and organisations thrive despite the different approaches.

How do Leaders and Managers organise workloads?

The Manager’s objective is to achieve the best performance and produce the highest quality deliverables. It involves assigning work to a team to get the most out of its skills and abilities. According to Debbie Rosemont, a Productivity Consultant and Certified Professional Organizer at SimplyPlaced, workload management is “having systems to ensure that teams/individuals get priority work done effectively and efficiently. Systems should help people do their best work and get the best outcome.”

The following are techniques for Managers for managing workloads:

1. Determine Team Tasks and Capacity: List all the projects, tasks, and processes your team must complete. Identify critical milestones and timelines for projects and tasks. Validate the task duration and due dates. Break down more significant functions into smaller ones.

2. Prioritise Tasks: Prioritise tasks based on their dependency, importance, and urgency.

3. Assign Tasks: Assign tasks based on each team member’s skills, experience, and workload.

4. Monitor Progress: Monitor progress to ensure work is on track and understand the impact of dependency regularly to ensure no new delays impact progress.

5. Evaluate Workload Management: Evaluate workload management regularly to identify areas for improvement.

6. Provide Support: Provide support to team members when they need it.

Managing workloads is a crucial aspect of leadership, and they are more adept at agility. Andrew Stellman, a developer, architect, Agile coach, and six-time O’Reilly author, connects workload to workflow. It involves efficiently distributing and managing work across the team to maximise employee performance and prevent burnout. The Leader needs to find blockages and dependencies and apply the BALM (breakdown and analyse tasks, list and match competencies with team members) to find work ahead and reduce stress.

Here are tips for Leaders to manage their team’s workload:

1. Set realistic expectations: Leaders should set specific expectations for both teams and team members. It helps in providing team members with workloads that are easier to manage.

2. Prioritise tasks: Prioritising tasks is essential to workload management. Leaders should assign tasks based on employee strengths and prioritise them based on their importance.

3. Establish transparent workflows: Establishing transparent workflows and approval processes can help employees better understand their roles and responsibilities.

4. Assign work fairly: Leaders should ensure team members divide the workload fairly. Overworking high performers can lead to resentment and loss of productivity.

5. Use workload management tools: Workload management tools provide real-time insight into your team’s tasks.

Finally, from an Agile perspective, workload management is less about figuring out how work to pile on each team member but understanding the flow of work through the project,” he explains. “A good Agile team is self-organising; team members assign themselves work from a backlog and at the last responsible level/moment. It differs from where a project manager in a traditional model decides how to allocate work to the team members.”

How do Leaders and Managers tackle unfair work conditions?

Unfair treatment at work can lead to decreased motivation and drops in performance. It is illegal to treat somebody dishonestly, including harassment, because of their protected characteristics.

Companies must define such features as religion, age, marriage and civil partnership, maternity and pregnancy, disability, gender reassignment, race or belief, sex, or sexual orientation. Unfair treatment at work examples can include even the name of ‘banter’, old vs. fresh staff comparison, unfair criticism during review or allocating menial tasks.

Unfortunately, managers ignore unfair work conditions. According to a research study by Harvard Business Review, managers may not always promote employees’ ideas. They can even actively disregard employee concerns and act in ways discouraging employees from speaking up. The study suggests managers fail to create speak-up cultures not because they are self-focused or egotistical but because their organisations put them in impossible positions. They face two distinct hurdles: Lack of empowerment to act on input from below and feel compelled to adopt a short-term outlook to work.

If you are experiencing unfair treatment at work, it is essential to speak up. You can approach your manager or HR department with your concerns. If you feel uncomfortable doing so or resolving the issue satisfactorily, you can seek advice from a mentor or an equity advocate.

I am sharing articles that help you understand how leaders react to unfair work conditions for employees. Here are the article references:

1. An article published in “Psychology Today” suggests that leaders should be responsive to employee needs and concerns, strive to be fair and objective, create an organisational culture emphasising fairness and equitable treatment, and be transparent and honest.

2. An article in “Harvard Business Review” recommends that leaders should balance their emotions first before reacting to their team’s frustration, lean into their anger with an intent to learn, redesign team goals together, and build deeper trust by owning their part.

3. Another article in “Human Capital Hub” suggests that mistreating someone in your staff because of who they are is considered discrimination. It leads to feeling upset, shamed, and even scared. If this happens, their morale and their productivity levels plummet.

4. In a different article published in “Harvard Business Review”, it is recommended that leaders must quickly act on matters related to unfounded or exaggerated complaints that speak against others with the conscious or unconscious intent to harm their reputation or career or to increase their status through downward caste, religion, or social comparison.

How do Leaders and Managers address mismatched values?

When employees lack motivation, managers should first identify the reason for the lack of motivation before applying a targeted strategy. According to a review of research, there are four categories of motivational failure: values mismatch, lack of self-efficacy, disruptive emotions, and attribution errors.

Values mismatch occurs when a task does not connect with or contribute to something workers value, and they will not be motivated to do it. To help an employee out of this trap, managers should find out what the employee cares about and connect it to the task.

Managers should engage in probing conversation and perspective-taking to identify what their employee cares about and how that value links with the job. There are distinct types of Values that managers can draw from.

- One is interest value, or how intellectually compelling a task is.

- Another is identity value, or how central the skill set demanded by a job is to an employee’s self-conception. Importance value is how important a task is.

- Finally, utility value measures the cost of achieving (and avoiding) the activity versus its more significant benefits.

When leaders face a situation where there is a mismatch in values, it can be challenging to resolve the conflict. According to the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, one of the most difficult challenges to overcome in negotiation and conflict resolution is a value conflict over sacred issues.

The same source suggests three strategies for negotiating value-based conflict.

- The first strategy is to assess whether the value is truly sacred. Sometimes, our Sacred values are not open to compromise. In other situations, however, our values are “pseudo-sacred” — we are willing to negotiate them under certain conditions.

- The second strategy is to highlight the most efficient solution. In any negotiation, we can often achieve better outcomes by identifying and making trade-offs across issues rather than by haggling over matters one at a time.

- The third strategy is to use a mediator or facilitator. A mediator or facilitator can help parties identify common ground and work together to find a mutually beneficial solution.

Managers tend to address mismatch by addressing value regarding relevance to the team, while Leaders look at values as negotiable, non-negotiable and mutually beneficial.

How do Leaders and Managers work around poor relationships in their teams?

It is important to remember that workplace relationships are around our peers. When our relationships are strong, they can be a source of energy, learning, and support. But when they fracture, they become sources of frustration that harm both people and organisations.

Here are tips for managers to guide their team in managing poor relationships:

1. Identify the underlying problems: Conduct staff interviews or anonymous surveys to identify the underlying issues among staffers.

2. Encourage an open dialogue: A breakdown in communication at work can often lead to a much bigger problem if left unchecked. It is essential to encourage your team members to communicate openly and honestly. When sharing unwelcome news or a breakdown, identify the process and not blame the individual or a team.

3. Focus on team building: Managers can help build stronger relationships between team members by organising team-building activities, such as group outings or lunches.

4. Introduce employee-friendly policies: Managers can also introduce employee-friendly policies, such as remote work hours, flexible work hours or having concierge service, to help reduce stress and improve work-life balance.

5. Take time out: If a conflict arises, encourage your team members to take a break or time off before trying to resolve the issue.

Therefore, managers need to help their teams manage poor relationships effectively. Here are tips for leaders to manage poor relationships within their group:

1. Open communication: It is important to encourage open and transparent communication between team members. Invite colleagues to share differences in a face-to-face meeting. Choose a neutral, impartial location like the work cafeteria or a walk outside. Listen to everyone on all sides.

2. Reset the emotional tone: Team conflicts lead to emotional impact. Even minor issues create tension between us and others, which can cause us to reduce collaboration to minimise anger, hurt, and frustration. A Healthy Living and Lifestyle Website | How to Mend a Working Relationship suggests that we are better off resetting the emotional tone when we notice tension. http://www.healthylifestyletrends.com/how-to-mend-a-work-relationship/

3. Self-reflection: Examine your emotions, biases, and reactions in the relationship. Understand how your behaviours might be contributing to the difficulties.

4. Empathy: Understand the other person’s perspective and feelings. It will help you communicate more effectively and find common ground.

5. Critical thinking skills: Work with the other person to find a solution for both of you. Building healthy relationships takes time and effort, but it is worth it eventually.

Finally,

- We respect people who uphold rules to help others and,

- We follow or get inspired by people who break rules that benefit others.

It is true in every sphere of our lives.

In our professional lives, we often come across supervisors who will quote regulations but need help understandingthe intent of the rules. We define Professionals as people who tend to move away from emotional relationships and are detached, driven & focused on a goal. We would have often heard a caveat managers use: “Based on current information, data and analysis, we stand by our decision; it is fair & just. “

On the other hand, Leaders like to understand the regulation’s intent, purpose, and objective. We regularly encounter situations where policies or procedures do not cover every scenario. In such cases, Leaders understand the problem & the context; they identify the separation between context and intent of the policy, and they aim to update rules/regulations to keep an organisation alive/purposeful. They break the rules, aligning the organisation as circumstances change, but ensure that values remain core in decision-making. Such Leaders remain focused on the purpose and sense of belief.

Let us summarise the tools, techniques, and thinking approaches that seem different. Managers in large enterprises tend to be more oriented towards system thinking, leading to the breaking down of activities & work, and the thinking approach is more situational. While doing more build-up scenarios, leaders focus on the design thinking process to make their offerings more relevant to customers and use strategic leadership approaches to remain aligned with the market.

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Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Strategy, Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor