What comes to mind when you think of a manager? How about a leader? Are they the same, or different?
Late last year, I participated in a panel discussion about leadership in geographic information systems (GIS) at the Women in GIS Arizona fall meeting. It was a fantastic discussion about careers in GIS and how we, the panelists, ended up in our roles, but it also was a discussion about leadership and what leadership is — and is not.
Two of the women on the panel, including me, spoke about making the choice to step away from managerial roles, but as we both discussed, continue to be leaders in our field. The conversation got me thinking about what leadership is and what we mean when we say “leadership.”
Leadership is traditionally defined as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization,” and has some universal and some different requirements depending on the field (academia vs. technology, for example). There is a consistent concept of traditional leadership roles existing inside of a proscribed framework where staff start at entry level and work their way into senior staff and then managerial positions. In many organizations, the terms “manager” and “leader” are more or less synonymous.
We often hear people talk about “the company leadership” or “the current leadership,” and generally these comments are referencing executive management or people in management roles. This very traditional approach to leadership can be seen in many fields, including technology, policy, finance and government. I would argue, however, that a manager, though they might lead a team, is not necessarily a leader, and vice versa.
While I was a good GIS manager (if I may say so myself), I didn’t like the paperwork and personnel reviews, and the other typical “managerial” tasks. I’m not sure anyone likes that aspect of managing, but I digress. Taking a management position was the next logical step in my career trajectory toward “leadership,” but while I was “managing,” I didn’t feel excited to do the work. I wanted to get my hands back on the tech, and back into mapping and teaching.
One aspect that I did like about being a manager, was the ability to
- participate in interesting meetings
- help shape organizational processes
- talk to people about their personal and professional development, and
- have people use what I have to say/what we discussed about these topics to their benefit.
I also loved helping people find opportunities to use their talents in creative ways. What I didn’t realize is that these are leadership traits that are not linked to being a manager, and I could still do these things as a senior staff member.
Fast Company published an article a few years ago, asking “Are You a Leader or a Manager?” The article discussed several aspects of leadership that go beyond “managing” including motivation, influence and inspiration:
A manager is someone who has climbed up the ranks as a result of their experience in the field and fills the gap between upper management and the technical workers on the ground. … Leaders, on the other hand, influence and inspire people to action. They provide a long-term vision and goals for the organization and rally people around those goals.
In other words, leaders find ways to gather people to work toward these goals. Together.
Our Women in GIS panel discussion got me thinking in a more concrete way about my career trajectory and how I made a deliberate decision to step away from management. Prior to my current role, I had always held on to the idea of traditional leadership, and that leadership was reserved for people with a certain number of years in service or access to the position or skills as opposed to having the respect of their peers and subordinates.
When I started my new role in local government 13 years ago, I made the decision to go back to a career service* position, where I could (and have been able to) cultivate skills and respect in a nontraditional leadership role. I regularly help to shape organizational processes and support my colleagues in their own personal and professional development. I know that taking the “expected” path of leadership is not of interest to me, and that it doesn’t have to be my path, regardless of what societal expectations might be.
I’m very interested in hearing about how other people view leadership, and how you lead. Do you think the tech space is different when it comes to leadership? Drop by my Facebook page and join the discussion, or email me with your thoughts.
*Career service is generally speaking, a type of government employee who has full-time employment, job protection, and can only be removed for cause or through a reduction in force. This typically includes professional, administrative, technical and clerical workers, wage grade employees and uniformed employees of police and fire departments. In contrast, managerial service is usually at-will and focused on performance management and evaluation, human resources systems and leadership development.