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To Influence or to Control: That is the Question

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

By Kimberly Carlson

Tractus CEO

Throughout our lifetimes, we have been told that leadership is the end-goal of our careers. Remember, we’re supposed to strive to “climb the ladder” to ascend to the heights of leadership. We constantly heard phrases like: “to be a leader you must…” – “you have real leadership potential!” – “wow, what a great leader!”. But what does that even mean? There are very few advertised jobs with the title of “Leader,” yet we see plenty for “Managers.” So, what is the difference between leading and managing? Which one should we strive to be? And which contributes more toward organizational success?

While in graduate school, I got into a long nature-vs.-nurture discussion (debate? argument?) with one of my professors on the very question of the difference between leading and managing. I took the – admittedly controversial – position that what many of us describe as “leadership skills” is actually great management tradecraft (my professor respectfully disagreed…but he was teaching a class in organizational leadership). This duality also contributes to ongoing debates over whether leaders are born or made (we pull for both sides on this topic). Oddly, though, we never hear of raging arguments fought over whether managers follow the same dynamic, so it got us to thinking…

Before going further, we should first define our terms, starting with what we mean by “leader.” A (surprisingly) common approach is to proclaim a leader as anyone who others view as a leader. While this chicken-and-egg approach gets at an important component of leadership – you can’t be a leader without followers – it completely sidesteps the functions of leadership. What does a leader actually do? We ascribe to this simple definition of being a leader as “influencing others to achieve a common goal.” We like this conception because, by stripping away formality, reference to position/title, and organizational context, it gets to the very heart of what leaders do…they inspire.

On the other hand, managers “control or direct an institution or business, or some part of it.” This is the function with which most of us are more intimately familiar – we’ve all either managed or been managed at some point in our professional lives. Interestingly, a prominent management theory textbook used by many business schools describes the four main functions of a manager as planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. So, it seems, a manager is also a leader. Then why do we as a society have positive impressions of leaders and negative ones of managers? After all, as one 1980s TV commercial put it, nobody aspires to middle management.

Could the difference lie between the attitudes and feelings we associate with influencing vs. controlling? Leaders motivate us, they inspire us to do more, do better, be better! Managers tell us what to do and scold us when we fall short (well, not all of them, but you see our point). Leaders trade in the realm of the aspirational and striving toward the almost impossible. And, perhaps most importantly, they assemble a following, a collective unit of which we can be a part, working together to achieve those big, hairy, audacious goals.

Managers, instead, must dwell in the realm of the possible, the practicable, and the immediate. There are targets, deadlines, and budgets to heed. Of course, this is a very necessary part of being a manager – ensuring that the work output, whatever it is, occurs on time. However, is it accurate to portray managers as singularly focused on today’s production goals? What about the people they manage? Some believe that leaders focus on people and ensuring they have what they need to be successful, which may be why followers have such having positive impressions of them. Who likes to be told what to do? Doesn’t it feel better to have someone think about your needs and giving you the resources necessary to achieve?

At Tractus, we believe organizations need to foster both leadership and management skills in their people. Most importantly, organizations thrive when they understand that leadership and management are not binary – they run along a continuum and are drawn upon in different ways at different times. Organizations exist to execute strategic goals in furtherance of their mission: if you just encourage followers without making sure to plan, organize, and control, you are unlikely to be successful in achieving those goals. Similarly, failing to inspire your teams towards a common objective risks their disengaging or leaving your organization when something more exciting comes along.

In their book Developing Management Skills, David Whetten and Kim Cameron write that

“…managers cannot be successful without being good leaders, and leaders cannot be successful without being good managers… effective management and leadership are inseparable. The skills required to do one are also required of the other… All of us, in order words, need to develop competencies that will enhance our ability to be both leaders and managers… When you are promoted, you will be given a managerial role, and your success in that role will depend on the extent to which you have mastered specific skills. You can act as a leader in any context or role” (emphasis added).

In other words, leadership competencies and management competencies are one and the same. It is the role – and, importantly, the focus of that role – that differentiates how you will apply them. To answer our original question – you need both influence and control to lead and manage a successful organization. And I still maintain that I won that grad school debate!

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