The Myth (and New Reality) of Managers and Leaders

Leo Castillo
Posted: September 24th, 2021
A businessman on a blue background braces himself to pull a sword from a stone, as in the Excalibur myth

“Don’t be a manager, be a leader.”

I’ve been working in the field of leadership development for more than twenty years. This is a quote that I’m very familiar with—I’ve said it myself many times in my career. When I shared it in my workshops, people nodded in agreement and eagerly added their thoughts:

Leaders are visionaries, pro-active and forward thinking.

Managers are boring, administrative, obsessed with tasks.

Leaders are empathic, caring, and inspiring.

Managers are bossy, pompous slave drivers.

Plenty of others agree with this distinction, insisting that we should aspire to be “leaders, not managers.” After all, that’s why we talk about “leadership development” not “manager development,” right? The value of leaders over managers has become indisputable when it comes to developing talent in an organization.

Screenshot of Simon Sinek's Twitter feed on managers and leaders: "Management is the practice of manipulating people for personal gain. Leadership is the responsibility of inspiring people for the good of the group."
Simon Sinek Leaders vs. Managers
Screenshot of Alexander den Heijer's Twitter feed on managers and leaders: "When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important."
Even inspirational speakers like Alexander den Heijer believe in leadership over management. | @purposologist on Twitter

But today, I no longer believe this. The claim that leaders are better than managers is a myth.

New Definitions for “Leader” and “Manager”

Many forward-thinking companies are now consciously using the word “manager” instead of “leader.” Facebook HR executives talk about how to distinguish great managers from okay managers. Google Guides promotes manager development.

When I was working with Gallup for my Strengths Coach certification, I found they kept referring to “helping out the manager.” I had to ask myself: Why the manager and not the leader?


As it turns out, newer organizations have rewritten the definitions of “manager” and “leader.” The new definitions better explain the beauty and power of each role—and show how different they are. It’s a crucial difference that explains a lot when we look at the people on top and where the organization is going.

Great leaders look outward.

Great leaders look outward. They look at competition, look at the future for alternatives, patterns, connections. They create the vision and strategy that will lead us forward.

Great managers look inward.

Great managers look inward. They look inside the company, at each individual and the styles, goals, needs of each person. They help transform unique talents into performance.

So which is better?

You can be a great leader, but not a great manager. This happens when your vision is clear, the strategy is correct, but you can’t get people to work together to get there.

You can be a great manager, but not a great leader. You can get teams together to work to a common goal—the question is, “Is it the right goal?”

You can be neither a good manager nor a great leader. Or, in very rare cases, you could be both. The point is, they’re different.

The difference between managers and leaders is so crucial that Gallup’s book It’s the Manager claims that the quality of managers (not leaders) is actually the single biggest factor in your organization’s long-term success. And when you really think about it, that makes a lot of sense. You need leaders to set the direction, but it’s really the people who bring us to the destination, especially in larger organizations.

Infographic explaining how great leaders look outward and great managers look inward
Adapted by Leo Castillo from Gallup’s “It’s the Manager,” by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter.

The Main Driver of Business? People

People still drive the business. This is why, from a balance sheet perspective, the cost of people is still one of the biggest entries. It is incredibly hard to scale an organization without people. Therefore, how we take care of our people ultimately dictates whether our organization will succeed.

Taking care of people is ultimately the most important role of a manager.

Why? Because how people feel about their manager is likely how they feel about their organization. Does my immediate superior care for me? Does he inspire me? Most employees don’t really look at the company as a whole. As far as they are concerned, the manager is the organization.

Data has proven this, too. In Gallup’s most recent findings, at least 70% of variance in engagement is attributed to the manager. Employees who are disengaged are prone to be more absent, be less concerned with customers and profitability, and ultimately have lower performance. High employee engagement has been correlated to the opposite, plus higher revenue and fewer safety incidents, among other things. Research shows that companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share.

Moreover, the quality of the manager has a major impact on turnover: one out of two employees leave their company to get away from a manager at some point in their career.

So what does all this tell us? That we need managers, not just leaders.

Yes, we need vision, and yes, we need to compete. But we also need people who are talented in developing people. How do we get them? You could go out and look for them. Or you could build them yourself within your organization.

How to Build Star Managers and Leaders

Take a good strong look at your talent development. Specifically, how do you promote people? If you are like most companies, you probably look at the following:

  • KPI performance
    How do your people perform in their functional, non-people-oriented role? Did they hit their sales target, for example? Or save on costs?
  • Tenure
    How long have your people been in the organization?
Traditional talent development had a single upward path for both leaders and managers
Traditional talent development for leaders and managers was a one-size-fits-all approach. | ©Leo Castillo 2021

Although these factors make sense on the surface, this is a strong recipe for turning great performers into bad managers. Specifically, it’s how you get managers who say, “I just want to sell” and “Taking care of people is such a drag.” If you’re hearing this, it indicates a mismatch in the promotion process—an artifact of an old, universally linear career path in which people were promoted to manage others merely because they exceled as individuals.

This approach to talent management is now obsolete. To begin with, there are now paths for higher pay and incentives for those who want to remain individual contributors. People are no longer forced to manage a team in order to grow within the organization. This is how you prevent the infamous “Peter Principle,” through which people are promoted until they become incompetent.

Newer organizations carve distinct career paths for rising leaders and managers—ones that match the new definitions of those roles.

Newer organizations now have separate tracks for strong individual contributors and managers
Newer organizations now have separate tracks for leaders and managers. | ©Leo Castillo 2021

To begin with, these organizations put systems in place to identify and develop managers who may not have the higher performance metrics, but do have the high talent to develop people. We see this pattern in tech companies such as Google, where the manager is not the best programmer, but is the best at taking care of people. Such managers were commonly overlooked for promotion in the past, despite actually being the best fit for the role.

If you’re really lucky, it is possible to find people who are highly talented both as leaders and as managers—what Good to Great considers the “Level 5 Leader.” These rare individuals have a combination of vision and great people skills. If you find them, you would do well to invest and develop them, even consider a special fast track.

The special fast track is for the rare few who are both managers and leaders
The special fast track is for the rare few who are both managers and leaders. | ©Leo Castillo 2021

But don’t make the mistake of thinking everyone can fill both roles!

Manager vs. Leader vs. You

To appropriately identify whether your people are leaders or managers, you must understand what people uniquely do best and match them to the right role. The best way to ensure growth is not to try and make someone who they aren’t.

Instead, maximize their potential by investing in and developing them for the right role. Acknowledge their strengths, their individuality, and use what makes them different. Not everyone actually wants to be a manager (or a leader), after all.

So the next time someone says “Don’t be a manager, be a leader,” don’t buy into the myth. Stop believing one is better than the other—or that everyone can be both. Every organization needs both managers and leaders.

And what about you? Should you be a manager or a leader? Forget “should.” Just make yourself the best version of who you are.

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