Do You Want a Leader or a Manager?

golden leader

I was talking with a board of a Christian nonprofit recently who wanted my help as they begin their new search for an executive director. It’s been a difficult decade of instability and ultimately decline. They want to grow again. They want vibrancy to return to the organization.

They have had several executive directors during the time who haven’t stayed very long. They can’t figure out why the turnover is occurring and why they can’t grow as an organization.

They kept using the term “leader” in describing what they wanted and have tried to find in a new director. They’ve tried to find people who want to lead, because they want to grow again, but they don’t stay long. What’s the problem? What are they doing wrong? That was my baseline question.

I knew I had to discern some the culture in order to answer their original question. After further talks, I don’t know for sure why the previous directors left. There could have been many reasons, but in hearing their vision, what they want in a director, and the culture of the organization, it was easy to diagnose their problem. They were approaching their search process in the wrong direction.

I told them as gently as I knew how:

You don’t want someone to lead. You want someone to manage.

Many times we hire a leader when really we want a manager…and vice-versa. When we do there is always a misfit of culture and expectations.

The truth is they didn’t want an executive director to lead them towards a renewed, even God-given vision. They wanted a person to manage the complicated and man-made operations they currently have in place. I wasn’t trying to be cruel, but to help eliminate future disappointment if they know in advance what they are looking for in a new person.

In any organization, it is important to know the difference. Do you want a leader or a manager?

(By the way, this happens in churches sometimes too by the expectation placed upon the pastor that may or may not fit the pastor’s wiring and experience.)

Leaders lead change.
Managers guide systems.

During our discussion, it became apparent to me that the previous new directors came and were quickly warned by the board or discovered the hard way, what couldn’t be touched. They were handed stacks of policies. They were directed to the path of continuity. And they expected that the organization would grow again if current structures, which have worked previously, were managed well.

That, in my opinion, is the organization’s problem in keeping directors. They did indeed find leaders, but they expected them to be managers.

If you want someone to take what you already have and keep it running. Get a manager. The best you can find. With a pure heart. Good intentions. Great training. Let them go to work maintaining what you currently have. You’ll be happy.

If you want someone to take you to new places, even better places than you’ve been before, find a leader. Let them lead. Get behind them and hold on tight, because it will be a bumpy ride, then you can celebrate the new when it comes.

I am not pretending it will be easy to go the leader route. It won’t be. It will be tense many times. Uncomfortable. Stretching. Maybe even miserable at times. Change is hard. Managing existing is always easier than leading to new. It just makes a difference what you are looking for in the new executive director and if you what type expectations you place upon him or her. And, (this was the harder part of the discussion) you may have to change who you are as an organization, as a board, and what you are willing to do to embrace change, before you find the next director.

It was a hard conversation. Thankfully it ended well. But, they didn’t ask for my management expertise. (That’s limited anyway.) They asked for my leadership advice.

So, my bottom line leadership advice is they will have to change what they are doing (in how they allow a new director to lead) to get what they claim to want.

Have you made the mistake of hiring a leader when you were really looking for a manager?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Do You Want a Leader or a Manager?

  1. Yes Pastor Ron! The challenge of leadership is always greater than managing —

    ~ Leadership involves standing apart from others without separating yourself from them.
    ~ It could also mean speaking up when others are silent.
    ~ It necessarily requires the leader to remain steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty.
    ~ A leader must respond productively to political opposition (even backstabbing) without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus.
    ~ And a leader should be able to stay in the discomfort of a colleague’s anger without shutting off or becoming defensive.

  2. Over the years I have had two instances where during the interview I was told they wanted a leader, someone to lead change and revitalization. I challenged them with questions and followup questions. In the last case I kept the interview process going for almost two months to try to maximize the potential of success for both parties.

    Once I accepted the position and had been there a few months to a year the push back and micromanaging began. After several heart to heart conversations with the staff in both instances it was clear to me that they were in love with the idea of a leader and change leader but didn't want the reality of leadership. They wanted a caretaker style manager, to gently manager the decline. Sad.