By Ted Powell – February 2024

I frequently challenge growth-oriented leaders to ask themselves the question: Am I managing when I should be leading?

To support an effective team or organization, both management and leadership skills and behaviors are essential. However, I’ve observed a tendency to prioritize managing over leading, influenced by environmental pressures that demand and reward immediate results and quick fixes. Effective leaders separate themselves from this reactive bubble by purposefully directing their focus toward a healthy balance between managing and leading. They constantly seek ways to increase their time spent leading by attracting and developing people who are trusted to perform effectively in the absence of too much management oversight.

Below are 5 questions to support leaders in evaluating and adjusting their leadership style and focus, promoting a balance between management and leadership.

Utilize these questions to challenge yourself and adopt one or two shifts you can make to manage less and lead more. Read each paragraph describing the difference and ask yourself:

Do I tend to…?

Direct or Facilitate

During team meetings or one-on-ones, do you drive the conversation with ideas and proposed actions, or act as a facilitator? Facilitators ask questions, ensure all voices are heard, and create a comfortable space for challenging conversations. The facilitator consciously withholds their perspective until all other views are surfaced. Facilitative leadership requires implementation of the GULP principle (Greatest Unifying Leadership Practice), which is to replace the need to be right with the desire to be effective. The facilitated outcome may not align with your original thought or preference, but the ownership inspired by this approach will lead to a better result in the long run.

How and when can I direct less and facilitate more?

Plan or Envision

Obviously, it is important to create and execute an annual plan and budget. Leaders or managers rarely roll into the year without one. Leaders couple this tactical focus with adequate time devoted to cultivating and communicating a 2–3-year vision, along with the roadmap for how the team gets there. Don’t fall into the trap of “being too busy” to spend time and energy looking beyond the present. I recently discovered this shortfall within our Stop At Nothing practice! We got so busy adopting new programs and delivery methods in response to a post-COVID world that we neglected the development of a longer-term vision. Course correction and a 3-year plan is now in the works!

Do I maintain a balanced focus between planning the short-term (this year) and envisioning the future (2 to 3 years)? If not, what actions can I take to course correct?

Implement or Originate

Our leadership assessment tool frequently surfaces perceptions that the feedback recipient should initiate the creation of innovative ideas and processes versus waiting for those to come from the CEO or the Board. Senior executives or boards often recruit outsiders for key roles based on the belief that tenured leaders are too wedded to the status quo. Sometimes that is the right choice. Often the better solution is for the tenured employee to step up and make the time to initiate transformation. This involves stepping out of the comfort zone to seek outside counsel for new ideas or to invite criticism of practices you may have installed within the organization. When the tenured employee leads a transformation, the business benefits from the best of both worlds—innovative thinking grounded within a deep understanding of the operational challenges and realities unique to that organization.

How often do I initiate, without external prompting, a transformative change or idea? What new process or practice can I initiate this year?

Communicate how/when or Communicate Why

Our assessment tool consistently highlights a gap in people understanding the “why” behind decisions within the team’s communication culture. Rapid and frequent changes are a reality in today’s dynamic business environment. Leaders go beyond sharing how and when a decision is executed. They consistently discern whether people understand why decisions were made and communicate accordingly. Skip-level interactions are a good way to ensure people understand the “why”. These interactions should not focus on what and how someone is doing their job. Let their direct supervisor handle that. Instead, leaders use those moments, through questioning and listening, to determine whether the employee understands the overall vision and “why” behind decisions and company priorities. It is particularly important to maintain a steady flow of “why” messaging when communicating emotionally challenging changes, such as recent back-to-office or hybrid work policies.

Am I spending enough time and energy sharing the “why” behind important and impactful decisions within the organization?

Problem-Solve or Coach

We get intrinsic satisfaction from solving a difficult problem, whether it be for a work subordinate or struggling family member. Technically skilled, experienced managers excel at finding the right solution before anyone else does. Leaders learn how to allow a less experienced “student” to learn through their own problem-solving journey by asking the right questions and challenging them when they get stuck. Pay attention to what happens in a team meeting or one-on-one when a vexing problem arises. Do you jump in first with an answer, or do you exercise a patient silence to create space for others to propose and own the solution. I once observed an SVP-level executive, with a strong engineering background, enthusiastically commandeer a root-cause analysis discussion regarding a network outage, inspiring frustration among his subordinates. I called for a break and told the SVP to take a long walk with me while the team continued to work the problem. During our walk, my client’s angst was palpable. When asked how he was feeling, he exclaimed “I am very frustrated to not be involved in resolving that crisis. What kind of leader am I if I cannot support my team right now?!”. He defined his leadership self-worth based on whether he was directly solving the issue versus seeking satisfaction in the power of letting others rise to the occasion. By recasting his belief about successful leadership, he moved from managing to leading. That experience reminds me that leadership success should be based on how our team functions when we are not around!

When approached with a problem, do I react with solutions, or do I respond by coaching the team or individual through a process that inspires shared ownership and accountability?

Use this self-assessment to find at least one change you can make to elevate your leadership role and impact. Share what you have learned to help distinguish the difference between leadership and management.