Leader vs Manager: Myths and Misconceptions

by Bhavesh

Leader vs Manager uses three movies - Batman, Jurassic Park and Wall Street - to dispel some of the most common myths about what it means to be a leader versus a manager.

Myths and Misconceptions

From the leadership folklore

The myths and misconceptions featured in this article are almost never repeated the way they are spelled out here. They exist nevertheless. The portrayal of leaders, managers and followers in the folklore of the ages, right or wrong, plays out every day in businesses and organizations, in causes and movements, and in churches and families. In this article, we look at three such misconceptions with the help of three blockbuster movies: The Dark Knight (Batman), Jurassic Park and Wall Street.

Leader vs Manager in Batman

Who is the manager in Batman?
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The correct answer is Lucius Fox who runs Bruce Wayne's business empire. Bruce Wayne is the leader and Robin is his personal assistant. Joker and Catwoman? Who knows?

Myth #1: Leader is a Hero; Manager is His Side-kick

Truth: Leaders and managers compliment each other and round out their strengths and weaknesses.

This myth is played out in many movies: The hero is portrayed as number-one, the manager as number-two and everyone else as, well, everyone else. In my experience, observation and study, nothing could be further from the truth. Both leaders and managers have unique gifts, talents and skills that the other cannot fulfill. 

What Batman Got Right about Leader vs Manager

Did you take the poll above? Who is the leader and who is the manager in Batman? Bruce Wayne is the leader. He assesses the Reality (crimes and corruption in Gotham City), sets a Vision that he feels is important to the people of Gotham City (a prosperous, happy Gotham City) and provides an overall, big-picture guidance for the path to attaining that Vision. Who is the manager? It is the CEO of Bruce Wayne's business empire, Lucius Fox. Without the skills, support and talents of Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne can’t be Batman. 

Leaders often seem popular to others but have to make many difficult choices and live with their consequences. Bruce Wayne has to conquer many personal daemons before he can be an effective leader, the most important of them is his fear of bats. 

Myths about Leaders and Managers in Batman

However, Batman propagates the false notion of the leader as a hero, a savior, a celebrity who always "gets the girl." He puts himself in the spotlight and gets credit for other people's work. (To his credit, Bruce Wayne himself stays behind the scenes, letting Batman be the symbol of heroism.)

Bruce Wayne also insists on doing the real work himself. This is one of the greatest follies that many leaders fall victim to: They can't delegate to others or inspire others to achieve their Vision. As a result, they become the biggest bottle-neck to the success of an endeavor. (If Batman dies, Gotham City is in trouble.) Great leaders inspire others to achieve their vision and then step aside. In other words, great leaders achieve a vision through others.

True leaders are not concerned with popularity, heroism and personal gain from their endeavors. However, many leaders end up becoming popular (e.g. Mother Teresa, Gandhi), becoming wealthy (e.g. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) or "having it all" (e.g. Oprah Winfrey).

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." ~ Lao Tzu

Wikipedia on Management

Management in all business and organizational activities is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively. Management comprises planning, organizing, ...

Wikipedia on Leadership

Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task". Other in-depth definitions of leadership have also emerged.

Your Turn!

Who is more important to the success of an endeavor?
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Leader: When you have a strong leader, a manager is unnecessary.
katiem2 on 01/08/2012

I feel a leader is born and may cultivate good leadership skills where as anyone can be trained to be a manager and do so without natural talent or skills therefore lacking the true skill making a great leader. A great leader embraces other leaders and brings them into the plan allowing others to follow their talents making the whole better.

Famous Leaders and Managers

Leader Manager
Walt Disney Roy Disney
Bill Gates Steve Ballmer
Warren Buffet Charlie Munger
Steve Jobs

Tim Cook, Apple

John Lasseter, Pixar

Herb Kelleher

Colleen Barrett

James Parker

Mohandas Gandhi

Jawaharlal Nehru

Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Vallabhbhai Patel


Leader vs Manager in Jurassic Park

What was the #1 cause of the disaster at Jurassic Park?
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The disaster at Jurassic Park could have been avoided if proper background and reference check had been performed on Dennis Nedry, played by Wayne Knight ("Newman" from Seinfeld).

Myth #2: A Great Leader is Also a Great Manager

Truth: Most great leaders are poor managers.

If you have seen Jurassic Park, you may remember that John Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough, hires a team of independent experts to examine the operation of Jurassic Park, which has brought to life many species of animals that are millions of years old. He needs their "blessings" to prove to the authorities that the park is safe for the public. It's a make-or-break day for John Hammond's business venture. 

John Hammond is a stereo-typical leader, a visionary with a big dream and a charismatic, larger-than-life persona to match. But he also has some of the most critical blind-spots of a leader. He is a poor manager who overlooks obvious things that a good manager wouldn't. 

Mr. Hammond has already sunk millions into his venture. He has hired a great staff at the research lab. (Leaders love creating new stuff, which is what a Research and Development department does.) But he ignores the most crucial staff: people who will run the operations of the park on its most important day. (Leaders avoid operational maintenance, which they perceive as mundane and boring.) 

A competent manager, if Mr. Hammond had hired one, would have pointed out that great personnel, especially in the "operations" department, are absolutely critical to a theme park such Jurassic Park. Instead, John Hammond hires Dennis, who he knows is having money problems and has  questionable ethics. A good manager would never let him make such mistakes. 

Hiring a good manager would have cost Mr. Hammond about $150,000. Hiring a better "Dennis" perhaps another $100,000. The total, $250,000, is a fraction of the millions he has already sunk into the venture. The disaster at Jurassic Park was never about money, it was about competence.

"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

Leader vs Manager in Wall Street

What caused Gordon Gekko's downfall?
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Would you agree that it was Mr. Gekko's own hubris - "Greed is Good" - that was the primary reason for his downfall? Often, an extra-ordinarily skilled manager loses sight of what's really important. A good leader would help him see that.

Myth #3: A Great Manager, When Self-develops, Becomes a Great Leader

Truth: A great manager becomes a greater manager through self-development, not necessarily a great leader.

Can you imagine Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mohandas Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King deliver a speech titled "Greed is Good?" Of course not. Leaders are capable of seeing beyond short-term gains. This comes very naturally to a leader but not to a manager, who is incapable of seeing beyond her world of efficiency, accomplishment and short term gains. That's why, a manager needs a leader to keep her out of trouble.

Gordon Gekko is a great manager but a poor leader who makes many wrong choices for all the wrong reasons, not seeing the consequences of the decisions he makes on a day-to-day basis. Worse, he mistakes his terrific management skills for terrific leadership skills, causing him to build a philosophical model - "Greed is Good" - around his success. 

An extra-ordinary manager like Mr. Gekko would achieve extra-ordinary short-term success and begin to believe that they have the "right stuff" to be a leader. However, most managers are incapable of seeing beyond their efficient world for the right vision, the right path to that vision and the right purpose that would guide them to a lasting success. When asked to speak about why they are so successful, they would often deliver a short-sighted speech like that delivered by Mr. Gekko about why "greed is good." 

Ironically, it's Bud Fox, Gordon Gekko's apprentice, who seems to have the right ingredients to be a great leader because he often checks his actions with his conscience. He takes what he feels are the right actions, even though they may not be beneficial in the short term.

"There is more to life than simply increasing its speed." ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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Leader vs Manager: Traits, Qualities, and Characteristics [Free Quiz]

In less than 10 minutes, this free quiz will tell you if you are a leader or a manager

Experientially Discover Traits, Qualities, and Characteristics of Leaders vs Managers

This article starts with a simple quiz that helps you figure out if you are primarily a leader or a manager. With that self knowledge is hand, you can meaningfully examine traits and characteristics that define a manager as opposed to a leader. It also defines what leadership and management are and compares and contrasts their traits, characteristics and qualities.

Forest vs Trees: A Trait that Defines a Leader vs Manager

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Updated: 01/23/2019, Bhavesh
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beatrice on 03/04/2016

Leadership is a strategy of management. A manager is a leader as well, whether her or his dominant characteristic is autocratic or democratic.
Leading is not all the time in the positive direction. The leaders' leading strategy is not necessarily digested by those led either but they do follow, closed eyes.

Adam on 01/04/2014

Excellent article! Currently studying the difference between Management and Leadership, it seems that the perceived difference is tremendous but the reality...not so much. Both manager and leader compliment each other.

Very easy to reflect on a topic when portrayed through popular culture!

sheilamarie on 01/04/2012

Great article using popular movies to make your point. Well done!

hartnana on 12/21/2011

It has always been my opinion that you manage things and lead people.

nightbear on 12/19/2011

Really interesting way to look at this. And I love that you put it into a context we could all identify with. Leader vs manager is not always an easy concept. Excellent writing. Thank you. And congratulations on your award.

thepurpleturtle on 12/16/2011

This is a wonderful article about Leaders vs managers. I was the manager of a restaurant a few years ago and all upper management wanted to do was tell me to be more of a leader.(confusing) However, they never did give me any instructions, tip, or hint on how to do that. I believe that your article on Leaders vs Managers would have helped me out a few years ago.

Bhavesh on 12/16/2011

Thank you so much for the kind words and the Editor's Choice Award, Chef! You made my day. The more I write here, the more I love it. I will be writing more often for sure.

chefkeem on 12/16/2011

I enjoyed reading your beautiful presentation of the differences between leaders and managers. Please write more (often)! :)
*Editor's Choice Award

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