Leaders versus Managers

Leaders Lead    |   Managers Manage

The Nina

In the spring of 1492, in a little Spanish port city called Palos de la Frontera, Christopher Columbus stepped onto a large wooden shipping crate in the heart of the Palos’ trading centre and bellowed in scratchy Spanish, “Who wants to come with us to the Far East and get rich?”

The market was full of sailors from visiting ships as well as other men looking to get hired on. One of them hollered back, “Not on your life! That’s a voyage to our grave. We spend three years of our lives searching for your so-called ‘riches’ and we end up getting killed by pirates. Who needs it?”

“Ah, but this time it will be different.” responds Columbus over the steady din of horses and carts on the cobbled stones. “Instead of following the same route of all the other traders, I’ve discovered a new way.”

“And where’s that, oh wise one?”

“Due west; we’ll go to the Far East by sailing west.”

The gathering crowd roared with laughter. One of them retorted, “You will get us all killed! If we sail west, we’ll fall off the edge of the world, if the sea monsters don’t eat us first!”

“Ah, but that’s where you are wrong, mate. Trust me, I know the way. I know how to avoid the edge and the monsters. But the mermaids - I’ve seen them! There are lots of them and it’s true what they say about them!”

The laughter subsided and the sailors grew more attentive, so Columbus continued. “My route is shorter, faster and safer. We can make it to the Far East, load up on all its riches and be back here before those ships over there”, pointing to four caravels moored to his left, “even reach the Cape. We’ll put the finest silks, spices, pieces of gold and precious gems before your king and he will honour you with such pleasures and importance you can only dream of. You will be rich and famous beyond your wildest dreams!” Columbus continued to paint his vision with even more hyperbole and promises, watching the men’s eyes grow wider and wider, inching closer and closer to hear every word he spoke. Columbus knew he had them. He knew his vision was working on them, just as it did on King Ferdinand and Isabella.

He also knew when to shut up and let people’s imaginations do the rest. As soon as he saw the sailors start to talk among themselves, he knew his work was done, Columbus leaned over to his First Mate and said in a very low voice, “Señor Pinzón, in addition to those four prisoners the king gave us, please make sure you bring on a few extra men from this lot as some may outlive their usefulness and have to be replaced.” Pinzón gave a knowingly terse nod.

Columbus hopped off the crate and headed back to the Santa Maria, leaving Pinzón to sign up the new recruits. On his way, Columbus mused, “Well, I’ve got my ships and my crew, now I just have to make sure I can pull this off. The prize, the prize, stay focused on the prize.”

Miguel Cruz

On that same spring morning, just outside of Palos, farmer Miguel Cruz stood in his doorway, inhaling the sweet fragrances of spring and looking over at the tall masts of the Santa Maria anchored in the harbour. “I’m so fortunate that ship bought my last barrels of carrots and onions” he thought. “The extra money brings me closer to my plans.”

He had spent the winter months formulating his plans, sharpening his tools, repairing and testing his plough and harvesting equipment. Casting his eyes over his well constructed barns and his fertile farmland, Cruz was eager to get started with this year’s plantings.

Cruz’s goal was to increase his overall crop-to-market number by 10%. To achieve this, he had to clear three more acres of land, build a new silo and add additional storage to one of his barns. All this work meant he also had to hire on a new farmhand.

Pedro was young and had never worked on a farm, but he was excited about his new job and the responsibilities Cruz had outlined. Because Cruz’s farm was the envy of the district, Pedro knew he was going to receive an excellent education in farm management. And likewise, Cruz knew Pedro was a hard worker and saw great potential in him.

“Pedro”, Cruz began, “I’m going to teach you everything I know about farming, but the vast majority of learning you do here will be from your own experiences. Here’s an itemized list of your responsibilities” holding it out to Pedro. “But it’s up to you to determine how to do them to the maximum benefit of the farm.”

Pedro accepted the list from Cruz’s hand and immediately tensed. “Señor Cruz,” he stammered, “this is a very impressive and extensive list. You flatter me greatly if you think I know what even half of these things are, let alone how to do them.”

“I know, I know. That’s why I’m here; to help you and to give you guidance, but it’s your responsibility to get them done to the best of your ability.

Still sensing Pedro’s concern, Cruz elaborated further, “Pedro, why do we space our tomato plants two feet apart?”

“That’s obvious; because they each need room to grow and flourish – to reach their maximum size and produce maximum yield.”

Cruz smiled. “So why should you be treated any differently?” Seeing the tension start to dissipate from Pedro’s face, Cruz continued, “My job is to give you that room. It is also my job to keep you free from ‘weeds’ – anything that inhibits your growth or productivity, tell me at once. I too will keep a lookout for any and make suggestions to you about how to get rid of them.”




Leaders like Christopher Columbus and managers like Miguel Cruz have a lot in common: both are excellent communicators, both read people well, both emanate confidence in themselves and in their purpose, both share the same objective of maximizing the yield of their respective ‘business ventures’ and both rely on other people to achieve these results. But that’s where their similarities end.

Leaders thrive during times of disruptive change. They have the uncanny ability to look beyond the horizon and see the prize while others see only seagulls. Leaders paint a vision so real and compelling, and connect directly with their crew’s beliefs that these same crew members will subordinate all else and follow their leader, mostly on faith alone. This faith is further bolstered by the leader’s self-confidence and in his/her unwavering confidence the vision will be reached.

Leaders continually repeat and reinforce the picture and its benefits (i.e., fame, fortune, mermaids) to keep the crew all rowing in the same direction with an ever-growing level of enthusiasm. Leaders focus on the ‘why’.

Managers focus on the ‘how’. While they do periodically mention the ultimate goals, they place much more emphasis on how they are going to get there - upgrading existing resources, improving current procedures (generally doing things better – à la Kaizen). One important technique they use to motivate and focus the crew is to constantly convey to each member how much he/she is contributing to the achievement of these goals. They know this is not a one-shot project but rather many mini-projects, relatively speaking. Plus, the way to the ‘prize’ is much more apparent to all so their leap of faith is considerably less.

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
 – Peter Drucker

Columbus knows he can, if needed, lose one or even two of his ships; and he can also lose over 60 of his approximately 90 crew members because he is not out to improve the nautical skills of his fellow sailors, he’s out there to get the prize – the direct route to the East Indies. That route is the most important thing to him; the extra ships and crew simply improve his odds. To him, this is normal – ‘the end justifies the means’.

For Cruz, the means are more important, mostly because the goals must be repeatable (he also has to consider next year’s crops, and the year after). Therefore, Cruz’s Number 1 concern is Pedro. Cruz knows the more skills, responsibilities and growth Pedro achieves, the more productive he will be and the longer he will remain with him, resulting in a more efficiently managed and a higher yielding farm.

Cruz views Pedro as his ‘customer’ and Pedro’s customers are the crops; each much focus on their respective customers.

Columbus knows if he fails in finding a shorter route to East Indies, the consequences will be severe. Falling off the edge of the world or being eaten by a sea monster can’t be a lot of fun; neither can a mutiny or even worse, the wrath of Isabella. But if he’s right, the rewards are monumental (his voyage may even become historic).

Cruz, on the other hand, knows his situation isn’t ‘all-or-nothing’. He knows there will be some crop yield, he just doesn’t know how much. Weather, insect infestations, and other adversities are always factors. And, if these factors remain roughly equivalent to those of the previous years, he should achieve his goals. So the risk isn’t as great as Columbus’, but neither are his rewards. This is okay with Cruz; betting the farm is just not in his genes.

Being an excellent leader or a superb manager are both very worthy vocations, but they each have their drawbacks. Leaders are absolutely essential during periods of substantial change, but they quickly become nuisances during times of tranquility. Luckily most business leaders come up through the management ranks so they at least know how to behave like managers, when required to do so.

Managers are essential during times of relative tranquility, but they are handicaps during times of turbulence. No one person can be really good at both so he/she must decide which suits his/her style best and go for it. Whichever path you decide, please do it soon as there is an acute shortage of both!