A Simple Analogy for Understanding the Difference Between Managers & Leaders

There’s been a lot said about the differences between managers and leaders. It is an important distinction that many of our most prominent management and leadership thought leaders have wrestled with over the years. In his important 1989 book “On Becoming a Leader”, Warren Bennis composed a well-known list of the differences. Here are some of his distinctions:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

Mr. Bennis was right in all of these distinctions. Managers and leaders have different responsibilities and mandates. If you are a leader or aspire to be one, it is crucial to your development that these differences are clear to you.

At the Exceptional Leaders Lab, our favorite analogy for the difference between a manager and a leader is simple and crystal clear:

Managers are Thermometers, and Leaders are Thermostats.

Managers read and react to the team environment. They measure and report on what is going on. They keep track of results and compare those results to targets and expectations. They have their fingers on the pulse of their organizations.

Leaders are able to influence their environment. They can alter people’s beliefs and expectations. They are change-agents who strategically cause action, not just measure it. A leader can make a team comfortable or uncomfortable on purpose. A leader cares more about what is going to happen than what is happening now.

One is not better than the other, but managers and leaders have very different roles in an organization. We recommend that you consider your current approach with your team. Think about this simple analogy and consider how you are leading or managing today.

Are you a thermometer or a thermostat?





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