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Manager vs leader – Which one are you and does it matter?

July 1, 2024, 8:47 GMT+1
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  • Catherine Carden considers the difference between ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ – and whether the distinction matters...
Manager vs leader – Which one are you and does it matter?

We often debate, discuss and judge leadership within primary education. It happens via Ofsted inspections, local newspaper reports, national news stories and social media posts.

What does that term ‘leadership’ actually mean? Is it a more contemporary term for what we used to refer to as ‘management’? Or is there more to it than that?

‘Leadership’ is a term that all of us regularly use within everyday conversation. But if put on the spot and asked to define the word, most of us would find that quite a struggle.

Some will offer a fairly simple definition, such as this concise example: “The activity of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this.”

Others will argue that leadership is, in fact, a far more complex notion that has a variety of definitions.

That complexity often results in definitions of leadership morphing into a list of skills and attributes of effective leaders.

However, we shouldn’t see this difficulty in defining leadership as problematic. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how leadership is, in fact, a highly nuanced, multi-layered concept.

Manager vs leader

Management, on the other hand, is a much more easily definable term. It centres around the process of attaining organisational objectives through effective co-ordination of resources and activity within a hierarchical structure.

The terms ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ will often be used interchangeably. Some will refer to themselves as being ‘part of the management team’, or even ‘a manager’. Others will cite the presence of a ‘leadership team’ and consider themselves as being ‘a leader’.

When it comes to manger vs leader, leadership and management aren’t the same thing and shouldn’t be conflated. Effective leaders need be aware of the difference, and should be able to articulate it to their teams through their actions.

‘Management’ is characterised by task-oriented activities, such as writing reports, producing action plans, managing emails and various other administrative tasks.

‘Leadership’ is strategic, and will involve tasks such as enhancing teaching and learning, and feeding analysis and evaluation into priorities for development.

Most among you will likely aspire more towards the latter than the former, but probably concede that the majority of your time has become dominated by management tasks.

Quick results

The process of moving from being a task-orientated manager to becoming a strategic leader requires time, determination and a willingness to make difficult and bold decisions, underpinned by a strong understanding of what it means to lead, rather than manage.

Yet despite the manager vs leader debate talking about very different things, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Leadership roles inevitably entail a range of management tasks that have to be undertaken. What’s important is that leaders are able to identify when they’re spending too much time on management tasks, to the detriment of leadership activities.

Given the widespread pressure to achieve quick results and immediate impact, even the most well-intentioned leaders risk losing direction and focus, causing management concerns to trump leadership aims.

Yet if a school’s results and impact are to be sustainable in the long-term, only strong leadership will deliver that.

Developing a clear knowledge and understanding of leadership, and investing time in learning how to practice it well, will ultimately pay dividends for any headteacher and their school.

Catherine Carden is an academic staff tutor in the school of Education, Youth, Childhood and Sport at the Open University and works as an independent education consultant as well as an executive, leadership and professional coach.