1 Great Distinction Between Managers and Leaders

All great leaders are good managers, but not all great managers are good leaders.

This is not an article that lifts up leaders and devalues managers. Management is an essential function, and managers are highly valued members of the team.

There are differences, however, between the primary functions of management and leadership. And while great leaders can manage, that isn’t always the best use of their time. This can make it look like they don’t have management skills.

For example, some of the best leaders I know appear not to be very detailed. But don’t let that fool you, they are highly detailed in specific areas that are important to their leadership. For instance, in the finances of the church:

I’ve not met a senior pastor of a very large church, who is clueless about the numbers. They know the numbers exceptionally well. They don’t need to give their time to the management of the finances, but they know how to interpret the reports for leadership.

We could make a lengthy list of the different functions of management and leadership, but I’d like to focus on one primary distinction.

Let me give some context and then practical guidance. First . . . yes, we all “get things done.” In fact, we all spend much of our days getting stuff done. But there is a huge difference between the routine tasks we all do (leaders and managers) and those key moments when a leader makes something happen.

Management (largely) deals with the successful execution of something already in motion.

Leadership sets something new in motion:

  • Leaders cast the vision for something new.
  • Leaders pick up the phone and set something in motion that didn’t exist.
  • Leaders establish relationships and create partnerships to forge new territory.
  • Leaders meet new people asking the Holy Spirit to reveal Kingdom purposes.
  • Leaders pitch a new idea that creates change in the church.
  • Leaders shut things down to clear a path for something new.

Leaders make things happen.

“Making something happen” is not always about something large, grand and public.

  • A leader may quietly go behind the scenes and solve a problem with a generous financial gift.
  • A leader might discretely have a strategic conversation that brings healing and forgiveness.
  • A seasoned leader may have a tough conversation with a young leader to help them succeed.

In each example, two things happened: change and progress.

You might be thinking, “Managers can do that stuff too.” Yup, managers who lead.

5 Guidelines to Help You Make Things Happen:

1) Exercise honest assessment about what you have recently “made happen.”

What is in motion that if you hadn’t started it, it wouldn’t exist? Make a short list of what you’ve done that is purely leadership (set things in motion) in the last six months. From that list what is working as you hoped? Did it last? What progress is being made?

Don’t get caught in the trap of busyness, merely doing the same things over and over again won’t help you truly lead.

2) Random activity never helps.

Know where you are headed, and only make things happen that help you move in that direction. When a leader starts something that is “new and shiny” but has little to do with the progress of the church, it’s essentially a waste of time. It’s often just another program, event, or something not clearly aligned with the mission.

It’s vital to hold strong to strategic efforts and stay focused on where you are headed. Think progress!

3) Get out in front in at least one area.

Again, we all spend much of our time getting stuff done. That’s part of the practice of leadership, primarily when we include finishing what we start.

So as a leader, don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure to “make 19 things happen every month.” That’s not how it works.

It’s more like this. In what one thing, maybe two or three things, are you “out in front” and leading the way? Meaning, if you don’t make it happen, it simply won’t happen. That’s where you need to focus your attention.

4) Absorb the pressure that comes from saying no to lesser priorities.

I personally find that my greatest hindrance to remaining consistent with the practice of making things happen is saying yes to things of lesser importance.

It’s necessary for me to say no to less important things that gobble up my time, to make room for what is most important.

If I don’t think I have time to get off the “busyness treadmill”, it’s time to say no to something. I’ll admit that’s not always easy for me. I like people and want to be helpful, but one strategic thought – decision – and corresponding action can out-perform dozens of helpful deeds.

5) Create a team that helps keep you focused.

If you have lots of ideas, like change and variety, and perhaps struggle with strategic thinking, build a team that will help you.

If you’re in a smaller church, invite 3-5 volunteers who are business leaders in their fields. If you are in a larger church and have the right people on your strategic leadership team, they can function in that role for you.

If you are a staff member, you can create the same kind of team around you for your specific area of ministry.

Whatever it takes, make things happen.

7 thoughts on “1 Great Distinction Between Managers and Leaders”

  1. Dan, I’ve read many articles on this topic that didn’t fully catch the difference. But you nailed it!!!! Thanks!
    Reading this I couldn’t help but remember one of my favorite Bobb Biehl’s Leadership questions…”As a leader, think of one thing that could make a 50% difference in 6 months, then spend your time going after that” That’s leadership which at some point will require great management.
    Thanks again my friend!

  2. im at this turning point in my manager/leadership walk,, can do #4 well, but still struggling with the others, in different levels and different times, but each one is at a point of needing a ‘shifting of gears’ so to speak — i think reading (and rereading for a while) this article will help towards that change

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