In a business environment, there is a huge difference between a leader and a manager. In many circumstances and in many companies these two terms are conflated and treated similarly. Arguably, I believe they are different and should not be performed by the same person (if your organization is large enough, that is. At a startup you cannot afford one person per role).
An important component in understanding the difference between leadership and management is to understand that these are responsibilities, not roles or titles. One’s title can be anything. My business card could say “Lead Software Engineer” or “Code Monkey Level 3,” but it does not change what my actual work and responsibilities are. Similarly, a responsibility is not the same as a role. Two people that have “Director” in their title could be, and are likely to be, responsible for managing different humans, different budgets, the outcomes of different projects, and in their day-to-day could work on completely different things. In the rest of this article we’ll take a look at the definitions and differences between leadership and management and how they can be applied.
I define leadership as having a responsibility for the direction and success of your team. In many, if not most, cases leadership means you are not only responsible for direction and success, but also education. Leaders are responsible for providing growth opportunities and for the success of the project that they are attached to.
From an engineering perspective, “success” may mean that you have a product with zero known bugs and strong test coverage or a streamlined development process so your team can work as effectively as possible. From a product perspective, “success” may mean getting the product to market smoothly, communicating progress with any interested parties, and hitting all your desired/required features.
Leaders are supposed to be at the top of whatever technical chain they’re in. You can find leaders in engineering, product, business, design, and any other career track. This is reflected in how we use phrases like “industry leaders” to describe those who are setting the bar that all the rest of us aspire to grow to. Nobody says “industry managers” … I suppose because that would imply some sort of cabal or oligarchy. You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about employees, their hours, benefits, communication, or anything else related to that. Leaders are not responsible for humans, they are responsible for teams. They are responsible for providing resources to their team but they are not responsible for human needs.
Management is all about the humans. Managers are responsible for making sure that the humans they are charged with are happy, productive, and meeting expectations. People who have management responsibilities tend to be responsible for things like making sure that people get in on time (if your company has a start time), making sure that employees feel good about their job using techniques like one-on-ones, and helping the humans on their team when someone is struggling to meet expectations or struggling to communicate their needs. You may also work on group cohesion or reporting to the rest of the company about your team’s accomplishments. As a manager, your number one priority is the specific humans that you manage.
While personally, I’m a fan of keeping company hierarchies as flat as possible, that’s not always possible or easy to achieve. When it comes to the creation of leadership or management hierarchies, I believe those responsibilities should be delegated to different humans if and when possible. In a recent position, I had two different people serving as my Leader and my Manager. Neither of them had a title that included either of those words, but both understood that from a technical perspective, one would be my guide and the other would manage me from a human/HR perspective. This model worked out fantastically for our team, as we had very well-defined responsibilities instead of just calling one person my “boss” and having that one person be responsible for everything about my worklife. If, in your organization, you can set up separate Leadership and Management chains, I would strongly encourage it. By better defining people’s roles and responsibilities in smaller, more measurable ways you’ll have better communicated your expectations all around and everyone involved should be happier and more productive at their particular responsibilities.
This post is brought to you by InRhythm’s own Jack Tarantino. Check out his blog for more thinking like this.