So… What Does A Manager Actually Do?

Published: Sep 23, 2016
Modified: May 20, 2020


“It has become popular to talk about us being over-managed and under-led. I believe we are now over-led and under-managed.” — Henry Mintzberg, Simply Managing: What Managers Do — and Can Do Better (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).

I recently facilitated a senior leadership program for a technology company, where the participants got into a heated debate about the relative importance of management and leadership: how they are similar, how they are different, and their relative importance to business success and for the individual.

The group spent time exploring the impact for an organization that is over-led and under-managed, and the consequences for one that is under-led and over-managed. It was an eye-opening discussion. Their conclusion? It’s not about being a leader or being a manager. No matter your level in an organization, success is about being an effective leader and an effective manager.

What's the difference between a leader and a manager?

“Leaders are people who do the right thing,” note leadership experts Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader (Basic Books, 2003). “Managers are people who do things right.”

As they further explain: “There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, and opinion. The distinction is crucial.”

While this distinction is correct, it has brought unintended consequences. Some leaders now believe their job is about coming up with big ideas, the “glamour of leadership.” They dismiss executing these ideas and planning the details as mere “management” (the unglamorous) work. You rarely hear anyone voice excitement about receiving training to become a better manager, because what managers do isn't considered special.

Have we become so enamored with the cult of “leadership” that we now ignore the foundational necessity of rock-solid “management”?

My experience — both in corporate finance and as a global leadership and management development expert — is that that sustained success can’t be achieved by leveraging one at the expense of the other. The successful business moguls and companies are the ones who achieve the appropriate balance between leadership and management.

Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, says it well: “Just as management without leadership encourages an uninspired style, which deadens activities; leadership without management encourages a disconnected style, which promotes hubris.”

Perhaps we need to stop glorifying leadership and embrace it as a necessary component of management.

Firefighting or fire prevention? What managers actually do.

According to traditional management theorists, managers are supposed to plan, organize, coordinate and control. In truth, the pressures of reacting to urgent matters supplant most reflection and planning. Firefighting becomes the norm.

What managers do is respond to daily crises, take on too much work, operate with continuous interruptions and make instant decisions. They have no time to step back and consider bigger issues—a problem that often causes them to act with superficial, fragmented information. As a consequence, fire prevention doesn’t get the time and attention required.

In my next piece, we’ll explore daily management roles, effective managerial mindsets, and what, ultimately, that elusive “mixology of managerial success” is.

About The Author

Morag Barrett is the best-selling author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships and CEO of SkyeTeam, an international HR consulting and leadership development company. Morag’s experience ranges from senior executive coaching to developing leaders and teams across Europe, America and Asia. SkyeTeam works with clients in a range of industries including: Healthcare, Telecoms, Mining, Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology.