Supervisor, Manager, Leader

Now look, these aren’t industry-standard terms by any means. But as I’ve been talking to people, I often hear a reluctance to “move into management.” When you dig into why, you find some pretty interesting reasons, and I think they have a lot to do with those three words: supervisor, manager, leader.

First, let me make a case for “moving into management.” I’m constantly hearing folks complain about the management at their work. And I get it: at the very least, management can be a difficult, thankless task, and it doesn’t always attract the best and brightest. And too many managers don’t spend time trying to achieve proficiency as managers. That’s a shame, because it is a profession, and it has best practices you can learn and apply. I think if you’re going to be upset about your management, then you have an obligation to try and join in and make it better for everyone else. “Move into management” because it’s the right thing for the team.

A supervisor, in my terminology, is someone who simply takes orders from on high and makes sure they’re carried out. They make relatively few autonomous decisions. “Joe, go have Mary and Ben work on the purchase orders this week.” Aye-aye, boss! I’ll make sure they get it done and report back.

A manager, in my taxonomy, gets to make more decisions. “Joe, get the purchase orders wrapped up.” Okay, boss, I’ll have Mary and Ben do it. If they run into any troubles, I’ll help them through it, and it’ll be done.

From that perspective, there’s nothing wrong with being a manager. Here’s where management can go wrong:

“Joe, get the purchase orders done by this evening.”

Joe has two choices if that order isn’t possible. Joe could just say “aye-aye, boss” and then lean on Mary and Ben. Joe’s a poor manager if that’s what happens. On the other hand, Joe could push back a bit: “okay, but this evening just isn’t possible with our current resources. The team can likely get through about 80%, but we either need another person or another day to get it all done.” Good managers “manage up” as much as they manage “down” the org chart. That’s why management is a skill: it takes work, and you have to become good at it.

Then there’s a leader. For me, that’s the top of the food chain. Leaders in a good organization trust each other. They work together to form Agreements – a bit like contracts – between themselves, so that what they’re committing to is achievable, aimed toward the organization’s overall goals, and equitable. Leaders help their teams understand the decisions being made, and they lean on their teams to help provide the data that informs those decisions. Most importantly, leaders spend a lot of time helping to improve their team members. Leaders keep an eye out for opportunities on the far horizon, so that they can get their team members the skills and experience needed to take advantage of those opportunities. A real leader is more like a professional coach. The team does all the work, and does it well and willingly; the leader is along to help remove barriers, providing coaching, and make sure everyone keeps their eye on the ball.

Who wouldn’t want to be a leader, if the opportunity arose? It’s an ultimate way to help others, and a great way to realize your own success.

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