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A manager is a person in a formal position of authority, generally responsible for guiding a team or process towards an established goal.

In virtually all cases, a manager is in a formal position, as opposed to a leader who may be in either a designated or an informal role.

While managers have received a bad reputation through their lampooning in entertainment (i.e. Office Space, The Office, Dilbert, etc.), they provide a critical role in business operations. In a nutshell, leaders generally choose the direction of the team, and the managers figure out how to get there.

A frequent analogy used to describe the difference is that of building a road through a thick jungle. The leader decides on the path of the road, and frequently climbs trees to check progress. She also inspires the team to keep persevering through the challenging environment.

The manager organizes the work teams, makes sure the axes and saws are sharpened, trains new employees, and essentially runs the day-to-day aspect of the operation.

A frequently misunderstood concept is the comparison between a leader and a manager. The truth is that the difference is one of proportion more than of any other significant difference. Leaders must use their management skills on occasion, just as managers must display leadership to help teams reach new objectives. Leaders just tend to display a far greater amount of vision in their role.

A manager’s job revolves around:

  • Organization: Managers must manage time well, and decide how to structure their team.
  • Resource Allocation: Managers face a scarcity of resources. They must decide how to use those resources to meet objectives.
  • Goal Setting: While managers often help develop the vision with the top level leaders, they also have to set interim objectives to help their team meet those goals.
  • Prioritization: There always seems to be too much to do and too little time. The truth is that many people and organizations spend a lot of their time doing things that simply don’t matter much. Managers have to figure out how to do less of the unimportant things and more to the stuff that makes a big impact.
  • Risk Management: Leaders pick the course, but often are too far away from the process to see the potential problems. Managers, due to their proximity to the actual workplace (gemba), can see the pitfalls easier than a leader can.
  • Problem Prevention: Obviously, if you see an obstacle, you find a way to avoid running smack into the middle of it.
  • Firefighting: Most managers have to spend far too much of their day resolving problems. Of note, organizations celebrate firefighting far more than they should. While real firefighters are heroic, using that name for managers misses one important point. Firefighters respond to other people’s fires. Managers who “firefight” are often responding to problems they had a hand in causing.

Of note, the last three items on that list are often done in the wrong ratio. Firefighting consumes a far higher portion of a manager’s time than it should, and assessing risks and preventing them from becoming reality is mostly an afterthought.

While most management jobs are permanent, some are more temporary in nature, most commonly those managing projects. 

Managers will have a hard time running their team from an office. They need to be out where the actual work is taking place. I generally recommend that managers have their desk located with their team or out on the shop floor, and use a conference room when privacy is necessary. It keeps them more in touch with their team and avoids the Hawthorne Effect that shows up when a manager is an infrequent visitor to his team’s work area.

If moving a desk seems too radical, managers should at least make a point of ‘going to gemba frequently so they can gain a better understanding of the work.


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