Are managers leaders?

Earlier this week I posted my simple, operational definition for leadership:

Leadership is the process of engaging effectively with other people to get stuff done.

In this post, I want to look at the question of whether managers are leaders. Often, leadership is used interchangeably with management, but for me they are two separate things.

Looking at a dictionary is always a good place to start when we work on definitions. Checking out the Oxford English Dictionary's definition for manager online, we find this:

man·ag·er/ˈmanijər/ noun     a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization.


I don't think anyone signs up for a management job because they say, "I'd like to control things and do a lot of administrivia."  

That definition does address two roles that managers fulfill: that of commander-and-controller, directing people on what they do and how they do it, and that of administrator, which is the paperwork and approvals and all of the other work items that are, unfortunately, necessary in an organization.

Let's consider each of those two areas in a little more detail.

Administrative work.

Administrative work is required either because of external requirements, such as laws and regulations, or internal requirements, a.k.a. bureaucracy.

I think there are a few managers who actually enjoy being an administrator. There is a sense of completeness to finishing administrative tasks, which can be rewarding. Administrative tasks have rules and deadlines, so they don't require much creativity or thought.

Here's my truth about administrative work though: You will be a poor manager if you don't get it done reasonably well, but you can never be a great manager by doing great administration.

Administrative work is "meets minimum," but it doesn't create new innovations, or make your team excited, or indeed move the needle in any way. No one ever got a promotion because they managed their budget details accurately.  No one says at a retirement dinner, "I love my boss because he always signed my expense reports promptly." It just has to be done.

Another factor to consider, if you are trying to make a management career on administrivia: administrative work is prone to automation or elimination. Remember that internal administrivia is internally created. What is internally created can be eliminated. External requirements can be automated.

A great example: when I first became a manager, I was required to sign time cards. Back then, time cards were 80-column computer punch cards, each with an employee's name printed on it. My secretary (that was her title at that time) would bring me a stack of cards, and I would sign my name at the bottom of every card to show that I had reviewed it.

Later, those physical cards were automated and there was an online system that replaced it. But not long after that, we eliminated time and attendance tracking completely. We actually didn't track hours worked or vacation days. It was up to each employee to keep track of that information themselves. Most people weren't taking all their vacation days anyway, and those unused days were creating a liability on the balance sheet. There was no external or legal requirement to keep track of this information, so we just stopped doing it.

(Side note: It always disappoints me that while many organizations decry external regulations and laws that come from governments, they double down on policies, regulations and requirements internally where it is completely in their own control to limit or restrict those same policies. I have had innumerable times when I've been told by someone in an organization that "we have to do this for legal requirements" when I know darn well there are no legal requirements that apply to that situation. Self-inflicted punishment is the worst.)

Many parts of administrative work can be automated or eliminated. For sure, managers don't need to be paid well just to do administrative work. If this is the only value you bring as a manager, I'd be very worried about your employability.

Command-and-control work.

I'll say it up front: far too many managers rely far too heavily on command-and-control.

It was a management style that worked when people moved from farms and small communities and started working in factories and offices, because that work was new. It also didn't change very frequently; the processes that were established needed to be passed down, supervised, and monitored by people who knew those established processes.

But now, business conditions change constantly. Tasks are fluid. Technology either changes your business rapidly, or it changes your competitors, or both. Managing established processes through a command-and-control structure is dysfunctional in a 21st-century workplace.

There are a few – very few – situations where command-and-control may be necessary: for example, during emergencies (if you have people that have the required training and practice), or in dangerous or unsafe or health-related situations. But those situations are rare.

Simply inserting command or control into a description of what you would do as a manager quickly shows the limitations of these words:

  • This morning I came into the office to give several commands.
  • I want to control what my people are doing in their daily work.
  • I have a strong gift for commanding others.
  • I am going to a class to learn how to control people more effectively.

Or flip these words around to what you are looking for from your own manager:

  • I really appreciate my manager's commands in my regular reviews.
  • My manager is a great controller of my team.
  • The commands that my manager shared in our last team meeting will help our customers be more satisfied with our products.

I think you see the point.

Importantly, even if you replace the command-and-control words with a words that sounds better, like leader or leadership or leading, the idea is still not appealing if you don't change the behavior. In other words, saying that you are leader but acting like a commander or controller doesn't work.

Command-and-control is counterproductive to employee engagement. The latest Gallup engagement surveys (Sept 2021) still show that only 36% of workers are engaged at work. Nearly 2/3 of the workforce is not engaged!  

Consider these command-and-control situations created by managers for employees around the world. Which of these do you think would improve employee engagement?

  • If my job is to join a virtual Zoom call or come into the office and have my manager tell me what to do, that is a turnoff.
  • If I have to get approval for spending even $5 for my work, that is disheartening.
  • If I have to wait to do my work until my manager gives me a direction, that is demoralizing.
  • If I have to review all of my ideas and plans in detail with my manager during one-on-one meetings before I even try out an idea, that is dispiriting.
  • If my team has to spend time creating a Powerpoint deck which has no purpose except to be shared with management during our weekly mandatory review meeting, that is, well, a colossal waste of time.

Clearly none of those management-created situations are adding to a positive work environment.

So what is left then, after you take away administrivia and command-and-control? What is a manager supposed to be doing?

I say that what is left – is leadership.

I look at leadership in all dimensions in my regular posts here at Please consider signing up for a FREE subscription to my posts. I post new thoughts every Monday and Thursday, and I post a link to something short and creative from elsewhere on the internet on Friday.

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Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA