How to Adapt Your Management Style to be Viewed as a Leader in Your Organisation

By Heather Campbell

Managers versus leaders. Aren’t they both the same?

Is it really possible to distinguish one from the other? And do you need to?

I have worked with hundreds of business professionals who share this problem of knowing whether they are leading or managing. And whether it really matters anyway. I thought I would write this article today to help you understand management style and how you can differentiate between them and decide how to adapt between managing and leading – because, truth is, most of us need to do both, just at different times. I’ll help you get there. Let’s start with definitions.

The key difference between roles is monumental: a manager is focussed on getting tasks completed and is driven by process and deliverables. A leader’s role is to inspire, winning people’s commitment to follow.

You are capable of wearing both hats, and bolstering your team and career. Here are a few practical ways to shift your focus from task-manager to people-leader and empower yourself – and your people – with my insider expertise.

Set aside time for each team member

Oh, it’s so hard to raise your eyes from the immediacy of day-to-day transactions when there’s so much fire-fighting to be done. But you must if you are going to lead rather than simply manage.

Managers talk to their people about progress with tasks, and most of their interactions are on the go, solving problems from minute to minute.

Leaders set aside private time – ideally once a month – to sit down with each member of their team to explore what matters to that person, to listen to them and to answer their questions.

This is leadership – it shows your people you are interested in them as people, not simply as performers of a task.

Learn to ask rather than direct

Of course there are times when you have to give direction about what you want done and how you want it done – and will not accept deviation from this route.

Again, though, this looks more like management than leadership, and is counterproductive if it’s all that you do. The more often you give people direction, the more they depend on you to give it.

Leaders ask lots of questions to get people thinking for themselves. These management styles don’t automatically solve problems, even though it can seem expedient to do so in the heat of the moment.

To make the shift, I recommend that, the next time someone asks you what they should do about something, ask them what is getting in the way of them deciding for themselves. Then help them to find ways round these barriers rather than simply giving an answer.

In this way, as a leader, you will help people to think more for themselves rather than relying on you to do so for them.

Communicate ‘why’ more often than ‘what’

I’m always surprised by how often managers simply tell people what to do and how willingly people just follow this.

A simple example of this is how often even senior managers show up at meetings without really knowing why they are there.

The nature of the organisational hierarchy can make us all incredibly compliant and far more reluctant to ask ‘why’ than we’d like to admit.

That’s where leadership comes in – good leaders explain the context within which actions will be taken (the ‘why’) and help their people to work out what action will be suitable within that context (the ‘what’). Managers dictate the actions to be taken without explaining the context.

To get better at leading rather than simply managing, start to explain to people what the problem or opportunity is and ask them for ideas about how to resolve it or make the most of it. Then do what they suggest rather than ignoring what they say and imposing your own answer.

You’ll most likely find this challenging because they might not come up with the answer you want. But it will really benefit you in the long term because you will get better at setting out the problem rather than imposing a solution AND your people will get better at analysing the problem rather than simply acting on your direction.

So, there you have it – three actions that will shift your focus from management to leadership. It’s a shift that’s well worth making although has been a challenge for decades.

1977 Harvard Business Review article discusses the dichotomy between leadership and management, noting managerial development has focussed exclusively on building competence, control, and the appropriate balance of power. In essence, the essential leadership elements of inspiration, vision, and human passion – which drive corporate success – were left out, the article states.

Nearly 40 years later, much remains the same. Process, stability, and control are desired by managers, along with instinctive, reactive problem-solving, the article states.

Leaders, the HBR article stressed, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully.


Switching your management style from a manager to a leadership role is a daunting process. I know how it can seem impossible; however, it’s an achievable goal, one I’ve coached many managers through to great success. It takes insight, self-reflection, and action. My top three tips which you can immediately implement are:

  • Set aside time for each team member
  • Learn to ask rather than direct
  • Communicate ‘why’ more often than ‘what’

What challenges have you faced while wearing both manager and leader hats?

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