A very easy way to create disagreement and disharmony in a room of talent management professionals is to raise the spectre of the long-running academic debate around the differences between a “leader” and a “manager”.
The distinction – if they choose to make one at all – might be framed in terms of an articulated vision; of positive inspiration versus negative instruction; or as drawing people towards a goal contrasted with driving them in the same direction.
The difference is often put in terms of the distinction in the approaches of different sports coaches.
Take your pick of practically any popular team sport and there will almost certainly be a legendary inspirational figure who inspired victory through the force of their personality and vision, while another is remembered as a master man manager and tactician, achieving results through detailed instruction and close attention-to-detail. The former essentially said: “This is my idea of success for our team. Follow me to achieve it”. The latter suggested something more like “Do the things I tell you and you will win”.
Of course, both of these figures may well have achieved a similar level of success, which should raise the question of why a distinction is even necessary. Part of that answer lies in the likely perception of these people in the eyes of those they have led.
In organisations themselves, it is unsurprising that employees will often be very sensitive to the suggested distinctions between the concepts in the people who lead them – regardless of the specific title of the person they report to.
Individuals may differ markedly on the level of direction they require in their role, but they will certainly be able to point to circumstances where they were trusted and empowered to get a job done, and others where they were micromanaged to within an inch of exhaustion.
They might also think of examples where they genuinely made the link between their personal efforts and the wider success of their company, and others where they simply churned out work unthinkingly to stay onside with their immediate manager.
It is readily argued that both sides of this debate are needed for an organisation to be successful – you need people to be motivated and engaged over the long term, and you also need them to get things done in the moment.
As workplaces continue to morph and evolve through factors such as globalisation and technology, the line between “leader” and “manager” has often blurred considerably, and the need for managers to play a greater role beyond short-term concerns has grown exponentially.
One common theme in the distinctions is the concept of coaching – of a close, personal role in the development of reports.
This is often associated with the involvement of leaders in the search for their own successors, but the truth is that coaching is now a necessary part of both leaders’ and managers’ roles. It is really an essential part of bridging the gap between the inspiration associated with leadership and the administration connected with management.
And there are concrete reasons for this: a manager who plays an active role in coaching their reports can have a far greater effect on aspects such as the retention of reliable and talented workers, and on the development of employee skills that they know will be of immediate use in their departments.
They can help to guide employees to further improve and adapt their approach, and better understand what else might need to be done to maximise the potential of every employee.
Coaching also requires a manager to ask a lot of questions – never a bad idea in helping to better understand departmental problems and gather ideas to improve efficiency or to be really creative.
Furthermore, asking questions and making time to take an interest in reports is an excellent way to establish real connections that extend beyond a relationship based on a dynamic of “do this because I am the boss”.
Instead, it can help to move a manager closer towards those aspects of leadership – trust, inspiration, purpose – that so connects the best leaders with their followers.
Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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