Why is ‘manager’ a dirty word?

Why is ‘manager’ a dirty word?

If I type the word ‘leadership’ into Google, within a nanosecond my screen is full of blue headlines like:

“Study for a High Impact Leadership Course”

“Leadership Development”

“Future Leaders Get Ahead Now!”

“Good Leadership …”

If I then search for, ‘good leader’, Google goes into overdrive with potential results for me.

But if I type in, ‘good manager’ then very little comes up – with the exception of the rather dismissive, “7 Things Great Leaders Always Do (but Mere Managers Always Fear)” …  mere managers, eh?


CEOs are always leaders, but the Head Coach of any football team, even when it’s someone like Sir Alex Feguson or Pep Guardiola, is a ‘mere manager’.  We don’t talk about, ‘football leaders’, do we? Is this because, in England at least, we still cannot comprehend a working class sport like football attracting ‘leaders’?

When I studied for my MA, I spent a whole semester studying and writing about ‘leadership’ even though my actual degree was in ‘management’.

So clearly, ‘leadership’ is something aspirational, but management seems to be just taken for granted.

Why are we so obsessed with turning managers into leaders?

Many people (and I’ve worked with plenty of them) are perfectly good managers in the sense that they oversee the workload, get the job done efficiently and on time, and make sure the team are content on a day to day basis.  But it’s not enough any more. During one of my last forays into corporate life I recall attending a meeting about staff development, and listening to the dazzling array of short courses on to which I could send my team. All of the courses purported to turn them into inspiring leaders who would bring passion, positivity and innovation, back to the office after a three hour workshop on the topic.

But why would they need to be able to do this?  Who would they be inspiring? And really, how much passion and innovation is actually possible for most routine office work?

Why is Leadership Important?

Now I’m not for a moment knocking the concept of ‘leadership’.  It is important.

I wrote a blog piece a while ago about how taken we all were with Gareth Southgate’s leadership of the England football team during the last World Cup.  The point being that Southgate didn’t just ‘manage’ them, he gave them a vision and belief. It was refreshing to see and he in fact took England further into the World Cup than they had been for many years.

And it’s very obvious when leadership is bereft; I suspect a lot of the UK would agree that our government (across all the parties) has been woefully lacking in leadership in relation to the Brexit negotiations over the last few years.

My point is more that leadership and management are two quite distinct skills.

At a very basic level, leaders take the army into battle, and managers make sure the guns are loaded and they all have enough to eat.  They are two separate disciplines and one cannot function without the other.

A perfectly good manager may well find themselves completely out of their depth in a leadership role, and a dynamic leader probably won’t have the focus to deal with the routine and minutiae of management.

I do wonder if, in our Instagram filled lives today, we have become so imbued with reaching for the stars and having it all, that #LivingMyBestLife can only be defined in images of power and greatness.  It used to be said that behind every great man there was a great woman. I think the modern version of this would be that behind every great leader, is a great manager. Nelson Mandela couldn’t have published The Long Walk to Freedom without help of his office management team!

Perhaps it’s time to return to showing some respect for the unsung heroes of working life, the day to day managers who get the job done, look after the team, communicate the Leader’s vision, and create the space to make it happen.  And if you have a really good manager, appreciate them.

After all, while staff will often stick by a weak leader, they very rarely stay with a poor manager.


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