Are You a Leader or a Manager? Marcus Buckingham Says You Can't Be Both

Last Updated Oct 30, 2010 7:07 PM EDT

Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Marcus Buckingham speak at the Inc. Magazine and Winning Workplaces Leadership Conference and I learned two things: everything sounds smarter when spoken in a British accent; leadership is the opposite of management. "Very few of you will be very, very good at both," Buckingham told the audience of CEOs. All companies need both managers and leaders, of course, and Buckingham insists that there's no hierarchy involved in the distinction. Both the roles are fundamentally different. Which one are you?
A manager's role, he explained, is to get people to work harder for you than they would for someone else by identifying individual strengths and weaknesses and turning that into performance. A leader, on the other hand, must rally people to a better future by tapping into universal characteristics that transcend differences such as sex, race, and personality type. And Buckingham says the most powerful trait that we all have in common is our fear of the unknown; it's why we ritualize death, after all. "Modern day leaders traffic in the unknown," says Buckingham. Their challenge is to "take people's legitimate anxiety about the unknown and turn it into confidence, into spiritedness." That, he says, ultimately drives a company's performance.

But how do you accomplish that? The best way, says Buckingham is to be "vivid" - a word I heard a lot at the conference, so I'm thinking that perhaps "vivid" is the new "authentic." In other words, leaders need to be very clear about what they are asking their followers (aka employees) to do. Buckingham insists that all effective leaders need to clear about four key points:

Who do we serve? At Lexus, for instance, dealers are king and the company is aligned around serving their needs so that they can better serve customers and ultimately sell more cars. At the retail giant Tesco, everything revolves around serving harried housewives, and getting them in and out of the store quickly. Companies that try to serve too many audiences serve none well, cautions Buckingham, so pick just one.

What is our core strength? Maybe you think your company excels in many areas. But according to Buckingham, a truly effective leader aligns the company to capitalize on one key strength and then works every day to make that strength even stronger to give the company a competitive edge. At Facebook, the company's core strength is its engineers. "The whole company is built around making engineers think that this is the best place for them to work," says Buckingham.

What is our core score? Pick a number or metric by which you define success. It doesn't even have to be the right number because according to Buckingham, being clear is even more important than being right. For instance, in order to change the culture of Her Majesty's prison system, Buckingham notes that several years ago Sir David Ramsbotham, who was then in charge the prisons, changed the way the system measured success. Rather than simply measuring the number of escapees, he shifted the focus to number of repeat offenders. The main purpose of a prison, he reasoned, should be to serve the prisoner in such a way that he or she would be less likely to commit another crime upon release. That shift resulted in the transformation of the British prison system.

What actions can we take today? Early on in his tenure, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was fixated on enforcing "quality of life" initiatives that New Yorkers either loved or hated. He vowed to crack down on the squeegee men who forcibly cleaned car windshields at red lights then demanded payment; he worked to get rid of all graffiti in the subway system; and he compelled every cab driver to wear a collared shirt. Whether or not you think these were appropriate actions to take, they were unambiguous and their success helped establish Giuliani as an effective leader.

What do you think about Marcus Buckingham's definition of leaders and managers? Do you think you can be good at both? Do you think his four points of clarity can make you a better leader?
  • Donna Fenn

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