Great managers vs natural leaders: What’s the difference (and does it matter?)

In the world of leadership, two figures stand tall: the Great Manager and the Natural Leader.

They’re not interchangeable, no matter how much the corporate grapevine might suggest otherwise. Every industry, from the corporate giants to the grassroots startups, craves effective leadership. But here’s the catch: not every top-notch manager is a born leader, and not every inspiring leader can manage the nitty-gritty.

So we thought it might be helpful to bring a bit of clarity to the situation, by explaining exactly what the difference is between “great managers” and “natural leaders” – and the situations in which you might want to look for one, instead of the other.

Let’s start by defining some terms

Great Managers are the unsung heroes of the daily grind. They’re the ones with the plans, the schedules, and the knack for making things happen. They’re about precision, coordination, and getting things done right. Their world is one of structure: setting goals, tracking progress, and ensuring the team hits its mark. They’re the gears that keep the organizational machine humming.

Or, another way of putting it, is that great managers are first-class specialists in operational efficiency and technical productivity.

Then there’s the Natural Leader. And despite the perceived close perception between management and leadership… natural leaders are a totally different kettle of fish.

With the natural leader, it is less about the daily checklist, and more about mapping out a destination, and then getting people on board for the ride. And what you’ll tend to find, is that natural leaders… well, they’ve got that magnetic pull. It’s not about a title or a corner office; it’s about influence. They’re the ones who inspire, who rally the troops, who see beyond the horizon. Their strength? Vision, intuition, and an uncanny ability to connect with people.

OK, so which one is best?

This isn’t about picking sides. It’s about recognising the value of both and understanding where each shines. And that’s because true leadership isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s multifaceted, complex, and downright fascinating.

Key skills and qualities

When it comes to skills and qualities, great managers and natural leaders often pack different tools in their kits.

Key skills of great managers:

– Delegation: They know they can’t do it all. But they’re good at selecting the people who can. So, they assign tasks based on strengths, ensuring the right person is on the right job.
– Performance evaluation: They’re the ones with the scorecards, measuring outputs, and providing feedback. But they’re not trying to nit-pick – they’re on a quest for continuous improvement.
– Organizational skills: Ever seen a well-oiled machine? It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but it’s so relevant here – because that’s exactly how you can describe a team led by a great manager. Everything in its place, and every process streamlined.

Key qualities of natural leaders:

– Charisma: They’ve got that spark. People don’t just listen; they’re drawn in.
– Vision: They see the mountaintop even when others are just looking at the hill. And they make you believe you can reach it too.
– Inspiration: Natural leaders don’t just care about getting the job done. In fact, sometimes, the journey is just as important as the end destination – you’ll notice that natural leaders are great at lighting a fire underneath the team, and making them want to push boundaries.

Their approach to people

The way these two approach people? Often, it’s like chalk and cheese.

As we’ve said already, great managers tend to be very process-driven. It’s about tasks, results, and ensuring everything is working as it should. And this will translate to the way a great manager approaches you as part of their team – sure, they may be hyper-focused on a particular result, and at times it may even come across as a little cold. But you can be certain that they’ll make sure you have what you need, whether it’s resources, training, or just a clear set of expectations.

Natural leaders, on the other hand… well, for them, it’s personal. They’re all about relationships, motivation, and team dynamics. They don’t just see a team; they see individuals, each with their own aspirations, strengths, and quirks. And they harness that in the way they communicate.

When you’re working with a natural leader, you may not always be certain of the steps you’re meant to be taking – but you’ll sure as heck feel confident to take them.

How they make their decisions

When the rubber meets the road, people will turn to their superiors and expect guidance on key decisions. But you may find that the decision-making styles of managers vs leaders are wildly different.

For great managers, data is their north star. They’ll dive into analytics, company policies, and past trends. Their decisions are calculated, measured, and often risk-averse.

Natural leaders, on the other hand, tend to trust their gut. While they don’t disregard data, they weigh it against intuition, personal experiences, and the pulse of the team. They’re not afraid to venture into uncharted waters if they believe it’s the right course.

So, while it may seem on the surface like a “great manager” and a “natural leader” are similar terms to refer to “people in positions of power”… In the grand tapestry of leadership, these differences aren’t just threads; they’re bold strokes of colour. Recognising them, understanding them, and leveraging them is key. It’s not about who’s better; it’s about who’s best suited for the moment.

And as we’ll see, the landscape is vast – with terrains where each type of style can shine.

Where the difference matters

Hopefully you’re catching on to the point we’re getting to here – that you shouldn’t be choosing between a natural leader and a great manager. Rather, you should be recognising the type of person you need, for the situations you’re dealing with. So to make that distinction a little easier, we’re going to look now at a few areas where the difference in style really tends to matter the most.

Innovation and change

In the fast-paced world of business, change is the only constant. And how one navigates this change can make or break an organization.

Natural leaders are often the torchbearers of innovation. With their visionary nature, they can see potential where others see challenges. They’re not just thinking about the next quarter; they’re pondering the next decade. They ask the ‘what ifs’ and aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Their ability to inspire means they can rally their teams behind new ideas, even if they seem a tad unconventional.

As such, if you’re trying to lead a particularly sensitive change – such as a change in direction, or a merger or an acquisition – then you’ll want the support of natural leaders to help you bring as many people on board as possible.

But great managers also have an important place in change management. While they might not always be the originators of change, they’re instrumental in its execution. Once a direction is set, they’re the ones mapping out the journey. They break down the vision into actionable steps, ensuring that the organization doesn’t just dream but achieves. They’re the safeguards, ensuring that in the pursuit of the new, the current operations don’t go off the rails.

So once you have the support of your people, the great managers need to step in to execute on the plan.

Crisis management

When the storm hits, the true mettle of leadership is tested.

In times of crisis, the structured approach of a great manager is a boon. They’re quick to organise resources, set up response mechanisms, and create actionable plans. They’re the calm in the chaos, ensuring that even in turbulent times, the ship stays its course.

Then, while managers handle the logistics, natural leaders address the human side of crises. They’re the ones boosting morale, ensuring that the team doesn’t lose hope. Their ability to connect means they can navigate the team through uncertainty, ensuring that while the path might be rocky, the spirit remains unbroken.

(By the way, we’re not going to apologise for all of our ship-based metaphors)

Team dynamics

At the end of the day, organizations are made up of people. And how these people interact, collaborate, and function as a unit can be the difference between success and stagnation.

Great managers have a place in your team dynamics. They may not always be the most popular people on the top table, but they ensure that the team functions smoothly. And in all honesty, your team would likely feel lost without them. That’s because they set clear objectives, define roles, and ensure that everyone knows their part. They’re the ones ensuring that deadlines are met, objectives are achieved, and the team remains productive.

Natural leaders can also be good at keeping things running… but not necessarily. Their strengths lie more in the interpersonal side of the team dynamics. They foster a positive team culture, ensuring that beyond work, the team connects. They’re the mediators, resolving conflicts not just by looking at the issue but understanding the people behind them.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s clear that both great managers and natural leaders have their moments under the sun. They have distinct strengths, and recognising where each can be leveraged is crucial for any organization.

Cross-pollinating the top table: How leaders and managers can learn from each other

The beauty of the leadership spectrum is that it’s not set in stone. There’s room for growth, adaptation, and cross-learning. While great managers and natural leaders have their distinct strengths, they’re not confined to their boxes. Let’s break down what they can learn from each other – because if you can breed more versatility into your senior team members, then you’ll have to think less carefully about which person to put into which role.

What great managers can learn from natural leaders

– Building genuine relationships: Running a team isn’t just about assigning tasks and tracking progress. It’s about understanding the person behind the role. Natural leaders excel at this. They connect, empathise, and build relationships that go beyond the 9-to-5. For managers, embracing this can lead to a more motivated and loyal team.
– Intuitive decision-making: Data is crucial, but sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Natural leaders often lean on intuition, reading between the lines, and gauging the team’s pulse. Managers can benefit from occasionally stepping back from the spreadsheets and trusting their gut.
– Inspiring and motivating: It’s one thing to manage a team; it’s another to inspire them. Natural leaders have a knack for rallying the troops, making them believe in a vision. Managers can take a leaf out of their book, learning the art of motivation, ensuring the team isn’t just working but is passionate about what they do.

What natural leaders can learn from great managers

Structured processes: While vision and charisma are great, without structure, things can go haywire. Great managers have systems in place, ensuring consistency and efficiency. Natural leaders can benefit from incorporating more of this structure, ensuring that their vision has a solid foundation to stand on.
Effective delegation: It’s not just about assigning tasks; it’s about ensuring the right person is on the job, equipped with the necessary resources. Managers excel at this, ensuring that the team’s skills are utilised effectively. Natural leaders, in their quest to inspire, can sometimes overlook this. Embracing effective delegation can ensure that their vision is executed seamlessly.
Data-driven decisions: Intuition is powerful, but so is data. Great managers often base their decisions on concrete information, ensuring that they’re not shooting in the dark. Natural leaders can benefit from this approach, balancing their intuition with data to make more informed choices.

In essence, the line between great managers and natural leaders isn’t rigid. It’s permeable, allowing for cross-learning and growth. By understanding and adopting the strengths of the other, both can evolve into more well-rounded leaders, ready to face the multifaceted challenges of the modern business world.

Should I hire a natural leader or a great manager?

OK, so we’ve established that there’s room for both types of leader in your business. But what about those times when you’re looking to make a hiring decision, and you really need to pick just one person – should you select the person who shows most natural leadership, or the person with the greatest managerial qualities?

First, understand your organizational needs

Before you even think about hiring, take a step back. What does your organization or team truly need? It’s less about fitting someone into your company, and more about fitting your company’s needs to someone.

If your organization is crying out for structure, if there’s chaos in processes, or if you’re managing a vast team that needs coordination, then a great manager might just be your answer. They’ll bring in the order, streamline processes, and ensure that the operations within your organization run without a hitch.

On the flip side, if you’re a startup, still finding your footing in the market, or if your team is demotivated and needs a fresh vision, then a natural leader could be the spark you need. They’ll bring in the energy, motivate the team, and drive innovation, ensuring that your organization isn’t just running, but soaring.

Next, weigh up your long-term vs. short-term goals

What’s on your horison? Are you looking to achieve immediate targets or are you setting the stage for a vision that’s years away?

Great managers are the sprinters. They excel in achieving short-term goals, ensuring that tasks are ticked off, and targets are met. If you’re looking to meet this quarter’s goals or ensure that a project is completed on time, they’re your go-to.

But natural leaders… well, they’re in it for the marathon. They’re instrumental in setting long-term visions, fostering a culture that’s positive and growth-oriented, and driving innovation. If you’re looking to shape the future of your organization, they’re your best bet.

Finally, consider the cultural fit

Your organization isn’t just about goals and processes; it’s about people and culture.

In a well-established, process-driven environment, a great manager can thrive. They’ll fit right into the structure, ensuring that processes are optimised and everything runs like clockwork.

If your organization leans towards a dynamic, flexible, and growth-oriented setting, a natural leader can be the catalyst. They’ll bring in fresh ideas, challenge the status quo, and ensure that the organization is always on its toes, ready for the next big thing.

Can a leopard change its spots?

Maybe not, but with the right training, a great manager can certainly develop leadership qualities and vice versa. Investing in training can be a game-changer. However, it’s essential to weigh the resources and time required. Is it feasible for your organization? Can you afford the time and money to train someone, or is it more practical to hire someone who already fits the bill?

If so, then why not have the best of both worlds? There’s a growing trend of looking for candidates who exhibit qualities of both great managers and natural leaders. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. Such individuals ensure that immediate tasks are handled efficiently while also passionately pursuing long-term visions.

In conclusion, the decision to hire a great manager or a natural leader isn’t black and white. It’s a spectrum, and where your organization lies on that spectrum determines your best fit. It’s about understanding your needs, your culture, and your goals. Once you’ve got that down, the decision becomes clear.