Being A Manager Doesn’t Make You A Leader (And Vice Versa!)


When I did a blog post on the Fallacy of the Big Idea, it generated a comment about other common fallacies in the professional world, including the difference between “busy” and “productive” (see Are You Too Busy To Be Productive?). One of these fallacies is that “manager” and “leader” are interchangeable. They’re not.

  • A manager carries out a corporate vision by setting policies, by implementing procedures and best practices, and by supervising employees who execute those policies, procedures, and practices.
  • A leader sets that corporate vision, develops global strategies to achieve it, and inspires others to commit to it as well.

Being a great manager does not mean that you are a great leader. Just as being a great leader does not mean that you are a great manager. Yet, clearly there’s overlap between management and leadership skills. Some of the best managers chose to be more than administrators—they chose to be leaders too. And some of the best leaders have likewise chosen to be more than visionaries—they chose to be managers also.

For those who want to advance in their industry’s hierarchy, there will come a time when they need to move from a managerial title to leadership title. How can you prove your leadership skills if you’ve never led? Well, that’s a difficult sell, isn’t it? So the challenge is to develop those leadership skills, no matter what your current position or level is.

Show interest and initiative. For entry-level and junior professionals, nothing demonstrates potential leadership like interest and initiative. Ask for additional responsibilities. Ask to shadow more senior personnel. Ask questions not only about your work, but also about the Big Picture context your work is in. The more you understand about the context of the work you do, the less menial that work will seem and the more effective you can be at it. For example, if you're a first-year litigator, you might ask how the research you did fit into the brief supporting that motion? How does the motion fit into the overall strategy for the case? What’s the underlying source of the dispute? How does that play into the likely resolution of the dispute? Now, I’m not suggesting that you make a pest of yourself with all these questions, so if the senior people you approach aren’t receptive, then move on to those who are.

Welcome constructive criticism. You must be able to evaluate successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses. Don’t dwell on failure and gloat about success. Instead, really reflect on why a strategy or product was successful or failed. This applies to everyone, whether they aspire to leadership or not. But it’s even more important for leaders to be able to recognize the errors of their ways and to improve. Innovation and leadership starts within.

Hone your leadership skills inside the office. Again, ask for additional responsibilities. Then knock the ball out of the park. Show that you are knowledgeable, reliable, and hard working. But also show that you’re interested in the Big Picture, and that you can think of alternative routes to get there. When you have opportunities to supervise others—whether a secretary or a paralegal or whomever—supervise them well. In other words, communicate clearly about expectations and deadlines. Find ways to motivate, inspire, and reward performance rather than relying on threats and punishment.

Hone your leadership qualities outside the office. If you’re nervous about trying to build your leadership skills at your current employer, then start by building those skills outside the office. Join Toastmasters or other organizations dedicated to professional development. Practice public speaking and writing, where you’re required to state and develop an idea, as well as to inspire others to jump on board. This also gives you a low-risk chance to be innovative and to interact with leaders in other fields.

Be a believer. People will not trust you if you don’t trust yourself. This isn’t to say that you should pretend you’re infallible. Again, self-reflection and analysis are leadership qualities. But you need to believe in yourself, in your values, and in your mission. Be prepared to promote as well as defend them. Be passionate, yet reasonable and open-minded. Demonstrate your commitment. Follow through. Show appreciation where it’s due. Be trustworthy.

Being limited to “just a manager” is more of a mindset than a limitation in your job description. Whatever your status, whatever your level, there are opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership. If you want to become a leader, then start now!