How to Manage the “Manage vs. Lead” Divide

New research suggests that leadership is more effective than day-to-day management. But think about your skills—and your schedule—before you make a change.

Are you a leader or a manager? If you’re one, shouldn’t you be more of the other?

It’s a familiar question around the C-suite. A leader is the person who sets the vision for the organization and makes sure that everybody in the organization is focused on mission, from the board president to whoever’s sorting the mail. A manager is the day-to-day operations person, keeping an eye on the staff’s productivity and morale, minding the budgets, and organizing the departmental meetings.

Every executive, I imagine, leans toward being one or the other, and common sense dictates that the best ones are a little bit of both. An association CEO who’s spending all day exclusively working on big-picture stuff is no better than one who’s spending the day changing toner cartridges around the office. But some new research suggests that if you must choose between leading or managing, err on the side of leading.

Some companies need great in-the-weeds managers as CEOs, and others need high-level, vision-setting communicators.

According to a report published last month by four scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a survey of more than 1,000 CEOs suggests that “hands-on managerial CEOs are, on average, less effective than leaders who stay more high-level,” as they write in a summary for the Harvard Business Review. The researchers come to that conclusion by asking the participants to keep diaries tracking their daily activities, and then mapping those activities to their companies’ financial performance. Those who qualify more as leaders under the researchers’ methodology tend to spend more time on communications, C-suite conversations, and meetings that involve internal and external stakeholders; such leaders spend less time in meetings with just external stakeholders, and on matters involving production and suppliers.

None of which is to say that all executives should neglect operations: The researchers make a distinction between larger and smaller organizations, and they recognize that the latter may require more hands-on attention. And ultimately, they write, an ineffective CEO may be less a function of the lead-versus-manage divide than evidence of a problem “the right fit between the CEO’s leadership style and what the company actually needs.” “Some companies need great in-the-weeds managers as CEOs, and others need high-level, vision-setting communicators,” they write.

So, the divide has a funny way of blurring, as some past studies have shown: More than anything, an executive needs to be omnivorously interested in multiple elements of running an organization, as ASAE Foundation research revealed earlier this year. And for all the high-flown talk about establishing a mission, sometimes leaders need to step in and manage to get workers focused on it.

But though reasonable people might disagree on what qualities make for a better leader/manager and to what degree, the study also spotlights something that perhaps doesn’t get talked enough in leadership circles: where executives dedicate their time. The NBER researchers found, for instance, that CEOs spend 56 percent of their average workday “with at least one other person, which mostly involves meetings, most of which are planned ahead of time.” Most of the time there’s more than one other person involved.

Imagine if the CEO gig was framed for you this way: You will spend more than half your time in meetings with other people. That’s a big chunk of your time, and though who you meet with is largely out of your hands, it’s not entirely. The decisions you make about who you’re spending that time with may reveal your preferences as a leader—and some of your shortcomings. If you feel there’s a balance problem in your lead-vs.-manage ledger, the time we spend with people, when we have a chance to choose it, may adjust that tilt.

Do association executives fall short when it comes to either leading or managing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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