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The Parable of the Leader and the Manager

The Parable of the Leader and the Manager

A few weeks ago I was listening with half an ear to someone talking about their career as a contractor (lit. freelancer, rather than the “actually getting things built” kind). Counting off the different jobs he’s done for various firms, he paused at his time as a manager. Looking thoughtful he announced “and the funny thing about being a manager, is that the most important person to keep happy is your manager.”

People measure managers by what they deliver.

Instinctively, that’s fairly obvious. If someone employs me, I’m likely to try and keep them happy, just in case they realise that their life would be better without me. However, he took this a bit further, stating that a requirement of being a good manager isn’t keeping your team happy; and if you ever have to pick between a deliverable and your team, pick the deliverable.

Liberal communist that I am, I had always considered that the role of the manager was much more of a balancing act. Standing up for the rights of man, I raised an objection; surely it’s a managers job to look after the team? However he shot me down- people measure managers by what they deliver. It’s the role of the leader to inspire (and in this I’ll envelop; “make happy”) the team.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever met anyone so clear on the difference between a manager and a leader. But at the same time, I realised that I couldn’t argue with it. A manager that puts the needs of the team before the deliverables, will ultimately end up with a great team willing to go that extra mile, but will sacked for not achieving anything. However the ruthless slave driver (to get hyperbolic about this) will get a reputation for delivering and power up the career ladder leaving a wake of devastated teams behind them.

Of course, the success of the manager comes at a cost. When it comes to taking a risk, or garnering innovations from within your team, you need them to be inspired, and for that you (apparently) need a leader. Whilst our manager might get things done, our leaders enable us to get things better. And perhaps that’s why we refer those who have driven innovation to success as business leaders.

If we start to focus on improving our relationships down the chain then we might start to benefit from teams that feel safe and inspired to take risks for a cause

Whether or not you agree with these definitions; and might argue the labels- I’m sure you can accept the stereotypes. I’m sure everyone has a story about that project manager who agreed to do everything in half of your estimate, spent every day riding you until you achieved the unachievable and then was hailed by the client as delivering this massive success- even though you’ve now vowed never to work for them ever again.

As civil engineers we have a client, and pleasing them becomes everything; we become managers. We begin to focus on getting things done at all costs, we lean on ourselves and our supply chain. If you want some evidence of how unidirectional the relationships becomes, take note that laws have had to be enacted to get us to pay each other and the specialist courts and processes created to handle just how litigious we’ve become.

However if, as an industry, civil engineering wants to innovate; perhaps we should start becoming leaders. If we start to focus on improving our relationships down the chain then we might start to benefit from the sort of discoveries and advantages that come from teams that feel safe and inspired to take risks for a cause…

Just a thought.

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  1. I really like the idea that being a leader and a manager aren’t one and the same thing. In fact, taking the definition a bit further I’d suggest anyone has the potential to become a leader without needing to be in a managerial position, and I find that notion quite inspiring. Great article!

    • Thanks Alan.

      I’m pretty taken with what you said; it’s not an angle I had really noticed- more concerned as I was about the need for us to tend our own supply chains is we want to be in a position to innovate. But I like it 🙂

      Watch this space; might be a post investigating your suggestion!