Do you ever wonder why most people end up stuck in middle management for their whole careers and somehow never make it to the top job? It’s because they have management skills not leadership skills. There are actually very important differences between those who become leaders and those who never progress beyond middle management. Ironically, those traits usually mean those who are great leaders can often make very mediocre managers and vice versa. But what are these key differences?

Purpose or tasks?

If you are a leader, you will be painting a picture of where everyone needs to go. There is this amazing future in which everything is better than it is today, and you engage and empower others to turn that vision in to a reality. It goes far beyond what any individual will do, to a state of existence that inspires everyone. They in turn will come up with the methods to actually get there. Managers on the other hand are focused on setting and managing goals and activities. They aren’t coming up with strategic objectives themselves, they are merely making sure the goals are met and ensure tasks are completed.

What is your view on the status quo?

Leaders are always questioning the status quo and disrupting business as usual. They see this as something to be proud of. Whatever is done, it can always be better. There must be some new way to innovate and improve performance. They know this will cause issues and people will question them and some will even have a negative view of the them as a result. But it is worth it to get things done. They are authentically themselves and self-aware of both their good and bad points. They are willing to stand out from the crowd and be different and won’t think twice about taking a risk to try something new. If it fails, not to worry, they will use that as a learning opportunity and try again. Failure is just part of the success journey.

Managers on the other hand are very different. They will stick with what they know and protect the status quo. If they make any changes to systems or processes, they will be small and limited in scope. Their view is that it is better to not rock the boat too much. The aim is not to stand out, but rather to blend in and mimic the behaviour of their peers and superiors. Rather than take risks, the manager will be focused on minimizing the risk. To stay on top of issues to make sure that nothing goes wrong. It is better to control or avoid problems, rather than accepting they will happen.

Are you focused on the present or the future?

Leaders think long term. They have a very clear picture of where things need to be in 3/5/10 years’ time, and for the most part could not care what happens this quarter, as long as they deliver on the long-term goal. They understand there are going to be ups and downs along the way and don’t get too bogged down in the details, its all about delivering on the long-term goal. Managers are focused on what needs to be done this week. They are task orientated and not at all focused on where things need to be by the end of next year. The focus is purely on working on what is in front of them, nothing more.

People or processes

Finally, a leader knows that a team is only as good as the quality of its people. Leaders embrace a growth mindset and invest in both themselves and the team. They are keen that both they and their teams remain relevant in an ever-changing world and on top of the latest developments. They treat their people as competent and capable people, who have the ability to achieve the required objectives. They give their people space to fail and coach them to find the answers themselves.

However, managers focus on what got them to their current position. Rather than invest in themselves or their teams, they will stick to the tried and tested. This means, they struggle to grow beyond their existing level and end up stuck in a role for 5 or even 10 or more years. They maintain the processes and systems that have been in place well and focus on structures to ensure the work is delivered to a good standard. Its about setting goals, monitoring work and tell the team how to do it and meeting the objectives. Rather than taking time to help their employees, their belief is that their employees are there to make the manager happy.