When it comes to delineating differences between managers and leaders in the business world, the following top-down logic has historically prevailed:
- Managers perform. Leaders inspire.
- Managers set goals. Leaders create vision.
- Managers maintain. Leaders innovate.
- Managers build systems. Leaders build relationships.
- Managers look to the bottom line. Leaders look to the future.
These examples align with a host of similar aphorisms that wind up painting managers as dour gatekeepers of the corporate status quo, while leaders get to move about talking, mingling, and seemingly having all the fun.
But as the world continually shifts, so too must businesses — from the principles that organize them to the people who run them. Revered management guru Peter Drucker was one of the first to identify the emergence of today’s knowledge-dominant economy and presaged that this shift would place people front and center as a business’ greatest asset. As a result, success is now dependent less on systematizing and measuring tangible outputs, and more on identifying and nurturing the unique strengths and talents of an individual workforce. For any organization to thrive, all its people must be guided by the constant motivation to learn, improve, and innovate.
And that holds true at every level, especially for those in leadership roles.
Now, more of today’s managers are expected to play “Coach,” responsible for harnessing talent and encouraging the development of human capital. They are also more likely to step into the realm of inspiration and team building traditionally reserved for leaders. In turn, this fluidity presents today’s executives with the opportunity to cultivate the single most important quality that will give any business an edge: innovation. This applies not only to their businesses, but also themselves.
Personal innovation, of course, is not a linear process. It cannot be simplified to engineering new technology or refining design. Leaders are individuals, with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Successful executives have likely already learned to play to their strengths. But maintaining — or even surpassing — such success is now just as likely to boil down to learning how to plumb their weaknesses.
A recent article from the Harvard Business Review identified four distinct coaching styles commonly used by managers to develop talent. The most successful approach was that of “Connector” managers: those who “give targeted feedback in their areas of expertise; otherwise, they connect employees with others on the team or elsewhere in the organization who are better suited to the task. They spend more time assessing the skills, needs, and interests of their employees, and recognize that many skills are best taught by people other than themselves.”
Executives don’t necessarily have direct managers responsible for evaluating their professional evolution, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from taking a similar approach to how they grow on their own. If the ability to maintain relationships has traditionally been considered the domain of leadership, then leaders are already at an advantage with a built-in network of contacts they can call upon for support.
It may sound counter-intuitive. After all, being at the top has implications that others may come to you for advice. But business isn’t static, and progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are a few key areas executives can target to develop or sharpen skills required for today’s leaders. But applying their inherent strength as “Connectors” is also a sound way for executives to identify what they could personally stand to improve, and then leverage their network to access the right resources and ideas to go about that process.
In today’s more team-based, lateral management hierarchies, admitting to a weakness (or two), doesn’t mean you’re losing an edge. On the contrary, by working to overcome deficiencies in skills, perspective, and knowledge, you’re much more likely to gain an even stronger foundation from which to lead.