CEO – Leader or Manager?

CEO – Leader or Manager?

Manager vs. Leader

Yeah I know. Both. But it’s not that simple. This article will discuss why I think you should be a leader first and look toward others to manage.

One of hallmark quotes defining the difference between leadership and management was expressed by Peter Drucker.

“Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things.”

We’ve heard it a million times. I get it and I wish it were that simple. Don’t you? However, Drucker’s quote does set the stage for that debate and the differences between the two. There is much to be learned about leadership styles and the differences between them. But we’re not going to discuss leadership styles here. That’s another article. The pregnant question for us here is what are you supposed to do first?

Leadership versus Management

The difference between leadership and management has been discussed, studied and debated for a long time. And while those discussions have merit, I’m not sure reading a 300 page book on the subject is a good use of our time. What we need is a guideline of the difference so that we know when to lead and when to manage. And, it’s helpful to know how our competencies stack up.

In my own experience, I thought I was a decent leader. And others would attest to my leadership vision. I could see opportunities and had some skill at addressing market needs differently and at building brands based on the nuances we brought to the market.

As a Manager. I pretty much sucked. I always thought “win baby win” was a pretty good management directive. Despite my best efforts, despite reading countless books and attending management seminars, it simply wasn’t my forte.

I tried. I really did try to be empathetic and understanding about why they needed to stay home and counsel their depressed cat. Or why repeated failure to meet certain goals that they, themselves, set were never fair and that they shouldn’t be held accountable. And most important, I simply did not have the emotional depth to understand those who openly and deliberately defiled the very brand upon which we all depended.

Ok, there. I said it. Still with me? So what’s the point?

The point is to recognize what we are good at and what we are not. That’s called self-awareness. Knowing who you are, what you stand for and what you do well.

Self Awareness

Some know what is possible or what needs to be done. Others know how to get it done. It is the rare individual who excels at both. In my own case, I usually had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done and why. But I was never good at the details. Deadlines would pass, goals would be missed and other directives just fell flat because I was never good at follow up or at imposing consequences. But I always knew where we were heading.

Every business needs the leader first who can see the vision, set and articulate the brand and recruit others to the mission. This is who we are, this is what we do and this is what we stand for. Depending on the vision, that in itself, may be enough. And the accomplishment of that mission is the stuff of which great managers are made.

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and a host of others clearly saw a different way, clearly articulated the vision and never wavered. Then they inspired managers to make the dream a reality. We can paint the same picture in sports of inspiring coaches who defined a winning legacy and assembled teams of managers and talent to make it happen.

You must be a leader first. If you can manage effectively that’s terrific. As you grow, you may need to bring on others to manage. Make certain that they are aware of their management strengths and are capable of bringing home the vision that you establish.


Knowing where to go is one thing. Effectively communicating that vision to those that are charged with accomplishing the mission is another matter. I think both leaders and managers have to excel in the communications department.

I’m reminded of my CEO client David. He had a unique style of communicating directives. “This is what I want you to do and when it needs to be done.” “Cool?” Then David would add this question “Now, would you repeat back to me what I asked you to do and what I expect?” Brilliant. And he was rarely disappointed. David communicated as a leader in such a way that his managers knew what was expected and that they had full authority and license to get it done by whatever means. That’s leadership. Getting the job done as expected and on time, that’s management.

By the way, David wasn’t a very good manager either. But he knew that and hired managers that understood their role, respected the expectations and accomplished the mission that David laid out. It was beautiful to watch.

The secret sauce was in David’s ability to communicate expectations. He managed his company primarily through a two-hour meeting every Monday. Following the meeting he would prepare the agenda for the following week and update the scorecard which tracked the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that detailed the performance of the company. The managers then, ran the business.

This formula freed David to study the business, the industry, the competition and the market. In the process, they redefined their industry and sold for an outrageous amount of money because they excelled at both leadership and management.

Action Steps

1.      Socrates urged us to “Know thyself.” Useful advice with the understanding that we change over time. Know where your talents lie. If you are not a skilled manager it’s ok. Recognize that and recruit managers or employees who are self-reliant and can get the job done.

2.      Communicate the vision frequently so that it is clear and unwavering.

3.      Lead and do not accept performance that deviates from the mission. That’s your job.

4.      “Win Baby Win.”

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