Leadership vs. Management: Trust Makes All the Difference

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Look online, and you’ll find an abundance of memes comparing the traits of managers and leaders. Many show the manager sitting behind a desk with the whip to his people, while the leader is in front of the pack and leading the charge.

But is it really that simple in our day-to-day work lives? I don’t own a whip; am I automatically a leader? How must we act to distinguish ourselves as leaders instead of managers?

The first step is knowing the difference, and I have a simple way of distinguishing between the two roles.

Managers Versus Leaders

The difference between managers and leaders is how they view their most essential resource: their team. A manager manages the team’s actions, whereas a leader manages the team’s development. The managerial viewpoint is concerned with maintaining the bottom line, while the leadership viewpoint drives growth for both the team members and the organization as a whole.

To illustrate, assume you work at a tech company, and there is a new software product scheduled for release. The team of software engineers is the primary resource to make this launch happen. Managers tie their success to the efficient delivery of quality products, processes, or services. In our example, the manager’s sole responsibility is to deliver a quality software package to the market on schedule while meeting the stakeholders’ budgetary constraints. Just as the budget, schedule, and quality are managed to remain on the established project plan, so are the resources. The team members (resources) have established instructions, directives, and expectations to complete the project. The manager’s goal is a successful product delivery.

Leaders take a different approach and measure their success through the development of their team. It is the leader’s responsibility to grow, empower, and motivate their employees. The leader’s objective is to provide the proper training, coaching, or tools to the team members to help them become their most successful versions of themselves. The leader’s goal is the growth and enhancement of each team member.

Although a leader’s main objective is to enhance their team members, they still need to bring the product in on time and within budget. If your focus is solely on your employees and not making sure the software gets to market as planned by the stakeholders, you probably won’t be in a leadership position for long. Does that mean a leader has to be a manager first?

Trust: A Key Differentiator

It all comes down to trust. A manager may trust their team, but there is little opportunity for that trust to be expressed. The manager works within a framework that demands team members perform the necessary steps to fulfill the project delivery in a certain way.

The mark of a true leader is that they trust and are trusted by their team members. Instead of specifying directives and instructions, a leader explains the end goal to the team. In our previous example, the leader would provide the objectives and expectations of the software project. The leader would also provide guidance on the limits of budget, schedule, and quality. What the leader would not do is tell their employees how to go about meeting these objectives and expectations. Instead, a leader creates an operating environment that relies on the team’s expertise and creativity. Through trust, a leader is able to accomplish the same tasks as a manager by giving team members the authority and responsibility to develop their own solutions to meet the end goal of project delivery.

The Journey From Manager to Leader

The transformation from manager to leader requires a shift in mindset along four key axes:

  1. Transfer authority and responsibility: The managerial role is about controlling budget, schedule, quality, and resources. As a leader, you have to be willing to give up some of that control and trust your team with the authority and responsibility to achieve project objectives. These small acts empower your team, create loyalty, and eliminate the need for micromanagement.
  2. Encourage creativity and proactivity: I have a good friend, and we usually approach the same problems in entirely different ways, only to end up with the same result. If we were each given a prescribed instruction, our individual problem-solving skills would be stifled, and neither of us would feel ownership of the problem. Leaders allow team members to be creative, and as a result, team members naturally take ownership of the process. As team members develop their plans, leaders encourage them to anticipate all possible pitfalls. Often, the end result will exceed expectations.
  3. Think big picture: Project parameters and deliverables are the main focus of a manager. Leaders ensure their team members understand how the project fits within a larger system or strategic objective. When team members understand the full scope of the project, they feel a sense of ownership and a stronger drive to succeed.
  4. Listen: As a leader, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to find out who is. Ask them questions about their specialty and listen. Find out what’s important and what to avoid. This kind of listening builds further trust with your team.

Transforming from a manager to a leader ultimately redefines your professional purpose, from the product to your people. Leadership is a difficult path because it requires the courage to relinquish control, trust your team, and make yourself vulnerable in front of your people. It may not happen overnight, but with courage and dedicated practice, it is possible — and profitable — to become a great leader.

Jenn Donahue is a leadership coach, engineer, entrepreneur, and the founder of JL Donahue Engineering.

By Jenn Donahue