Nader K. Rad

The naive 'manager vs. leader' idea


This article is an attempt to correct the common misconception about the difference between a manager and a leader. The topic we've all stumbled upon in our LinkedIn feeds and seen in certain ex-credible resources like... well, let's not name it!

Who's a manager?

Management is an organizational position. When the organization makes someone a manager, it expects that person to deliver certain results with certain people and resources given to them. To do so, they need to motivate their people in one way or another.

To make it reasonable, the organization has to give the manager a certain amount of authority to match what it expects the manager to do. The manager can use this authority as a motivational tool.

Who's a leader?

The old-fashioned meaning of a leader was limited to managers, but nowadays, we use it to refer to anyone who motivates people to contribute to the achievement of desired results.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

There are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic:

Manager vs. leader

A manager has some level of authority in the organization, and they can either use that authority to create extrinsic motivation (e.g., rewards) or just use intrinsic motivation. A leader who's not a manager can only use intrinsic motivation.

Studies suggest that intrinsic motivation is more sustainable, so we prefer to use that when possible.

Based on all of this, we can consider the following relationship between these two concepts:


The good, the bad, and...

The common naive formulation presents "leader" as good and "manager" as bad. Those who do this are not comparing managers and leaders but comparing bad managers and good leaders, which is misleading.

A manager who uses only extrinsic motivation won't be very successful and, in fact, will be very annoying to the people who work under them. Let's call these people "bad managers". Managers who use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are more pleasant to work for and more successful. Let's call them "good managers".

Now, we can have the following diagram:

not a managera good managera bad managerLeader andLeader andLeader andIntrinsic motivationExtrinsic motivation

... and the ugly

This topic is not complete unless we also talk about the context of the naive idea. Why do some people promote the naive idea?

There are two main types of people who do so:

  1. The trendsetters: Agile product development used to be a diverse set of smart ideas, and most of them didn't have anything against the project manager role (e.g., DSDM and XP). However, one of the first-generation ones was against the project manager role and promoted a decentralized project management system -- that was Scrum. Nowadays, all Agile systems are Scrum or flavors of it, and therefore, people who are not familiar with the broad range of Agile ideas think that having a project manager is against being Agile. This concept, mixed with the fact that some of the key people in this community tend to create the illusion of an external enemy to strengthen their position and gain more money, power, and fame, motivates them to question the project manager role. One attempt in doing so has been to target "management" in general with this naive formulation of manager vs. leader.
  2. The careless followers: Not everyone who promotes the naive idea knows what they are doing; they just see a trend, plus a colorful visual, and share it on social media or add a comment about a partially supporting concept without thinking about all the consequences. This behavior, which is very common on social media, creates a vicious cycle and brings more careless people into the mix, and suddenly, a false idea like this becomes widespread.

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