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Manager as Leader: A New Look at Old Concepts

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In 2009, as I was joining the Board of Regents for the Institute of Certified Professional Managers (ICPM), several of us were having a discussion about ICPM’s future focus.  At the time, leadership was a very hot topic in the business world and remains so today.  An Internet search on “business leadership” will return almost 9.5 million results, and a search on just “leadership” will return over 15 million.  There are countless books on the subject, and one of ICPM’s closely affiliated organizations, the National Management Association, even promotes itself as “NMA . . . THE Leadership Development Organization.”  So, this conversation we were having about leadership and its role at ICPM was highly appropriate.  Fortunately, we decided to take no action about changes, and that is a good thing.  Let me explain.

In 2002, I set out on what has become a very long journey–to learn about and understand the Dynamics of High Performing Organizations.  I was heading up work at Resource Development Systems to learn what the best organizations were doing that set them apart from the rest.  In the course of 3 years and over 100 research documents and 50 books, we discovered seven things that make a difference in performance.  One of them was “leadership.”  The research has continued and is still ongoing, and we are learning more and more about the concept of leadership and how it impacts organizational performance, and it does have a huge impact.

In most of the popular literature, leadership and management are often talked about as being separate from each other.  For example, “Managers manage things, but you lead people,” and, “Managers do things right; leaders do the right things.”  But wait!  Don’t we want people to do the right things right?  While these sayings are popular, neither they nor the dichotomy that they represent is very helpful to managers who are struggling on a daily basis to do their jobs the best that they can.  If someone is good at leading, how can they be a better manager?  Do they have to be?  Or, if someone is good at managing, can they pass on being a good leader?

Simply put, the popular dichotomy between leadership and management is not very helpful, nor is it supported by our extensive research.  In our review of over 1600 research documents and hundreds of books on the subjects of organizational performance, leadership, and employee engagement, we can safely say that these two concepts are intricately a part of each other, not separate nor opposite.

While one does not have to be a manager to be a leader, if you want to become an exceptional manager, then you must be a leader.  We have identified two primary roles of a manager,  that of being a Leader and Creating Emotional Connections; and that of being a Builder and Creating Sustainable Systems.  The role of Builder places an emphasis on Improvement, while the role of Leader places an emphasis on Engagement. Both of these roles are important, and a manager must become good at each; yet, these roles are rarely equal for any manager.

The emphasis or time a manager spends on these roles is dependent on the level they are at in the structure of the organization.  Managers at the highest and lowest levels of the organization spend most of their time in the role of Leader and connecting employees to their jobs and the organization.  These managers would be the CEO, General Managers, or other divisional managers, as well as line supervisors.  Managers at the middle level of the organization tend to spend more of their time overseeing the four Sustainable Systems of the organization which allow it to perform at high levels.  These systems are Leadership Support, Vision Execution, Innovation Optimization, and Strengths Mastery.  These systems will be covered in more detail in a later article.

Also, there are two areas of Performance Attention: Present and Future.  Once again, the level a manager is at in the structure of the organization tends to dictate where their attention is placed.  Managers at lower levels are more focused on the present–what is going on right now, while those higher up in the organization are more focused on how the organization will perform in the future.  Again, we are talking about where the emphasis is placed, not that the other area of Performance Attention is ignored.


While every manager may spend a lot of time in one role, it doesn’t mean that the other role is ignored; it just means that it receives less time.  Additionally, for every manager in the organization, no matter how much or how little time they spend in a role, their primary role will always be that of being a Leader and Creating Emotional Connections, and helping to create higher levels of employee engagement throughout the organization.  Employee engagement is crucial for driving high levels of performance, and no manager can let this role slide and end up doing something that will negatively impact employee engagement.

Over the next several months, I will share some additional articles that explore this new way of looking at what managers do and how they go about doing it. I will also share more about the role of leadership and why it is so important to the performance levels of the organization.  I hope to also provide insights that will allow you to apply the concepts presented to your daily work.  After all, if we can’t apply the learning from research, then it isn’t of much use.


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