Manager or Leader? Why most of us prefer Manager.

“A crucial difference between managers and leaders lies in the conceptions they hold, deep in their pysches, of chaos and order.

Leaders tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are thus prepared to keep answers in suspense, avoiding premature closure on important issues.

Managers seek order and control and are almost compulsively addicted to disposing of problems even before they understand their potential significance.”

Abraham Zaleznik

Abraham Zaleznik

I’m quoting Abraham Zaleznik, erstwhile Professor of Leadership at Harvard business School.  This extract is from his article “Managers and Leaders;  are they different?”, first published in 1977.

 To my eyes it could have been published yesterday, as the issues he raises are even more pertinent now than they were then.

So:  leaders are ok with chaos and managers aren’t.  An expert in-depth summary there for you -happy to oblige.

I often use Myers Briggs profiles in the Leadership programmes I run, and the question of how ok people are with lack of structure often arises when we discuss the Judging – Perceiving dimension.  The J preference is for closure, planning and orderliness, the P preference is for ambiguity, spontaneity and improvisation.

In my simplistic way I find myself thinking that Zaleznik is in effect suggesting that Managers have a Judging preference and Leaders have a Perceiving preference.

As ever, you can be an effective leader with a Judging preference, and I personally know plenty of people in that category, but it takes them more energy and feels less natural to live with ambiguity and disorder.

So as 52% of the world’s population has a Judging preference, more of us prefer to Manage than to Lead.  Probably just as well, as we can’t all be leaders.

Or can we?

I’m posing the question today as to whether you have a natural preference for J or P.  If you don’t know, might I suggest you do the Myers Briggs profile and find out?  It’s a question to which you should know the answer if you’re reading Blogs like this and trying to develop your thinking.  If you are a Leader with a Judging preference, how can you learn to become more comfortable with disorder, loose timelines, improvisation and unplanned changes?  

I want to finish with another comment from the same article, which again makes it feel as if it was written yesterday:

“Seldom do the uncertainties of potential chaos cause problems.  Instead, it is the instinctive move to impose order on potential chaos that makes trouble for organizations.”

Frau gestresst und in Panik isoliertThis resonates so well for me.  I see it so often in exercises I use with leaders on my programmes:  taking things too literally, not reading between the lines, and jumping in with both feet as soon as a problem is outlined.  Hardly any time spent exploring options, asking questions to understand the context, or agreeing how to go about things or indeed clarifying what is supposed to be achieved.

The default mindset which I see in today’s business community is:

“The sooner we start the sooner we’ll finish.”

That is a Management mindset if ever I heard one.  Execution on the plan is the top priority.  Don’t worry if the plan is flawed – as long as we’ve been seen to have done our bit, we’ll be fine.

How scary is that?

Again, what can you do to help, when everyone around you is running around in circles?  Slow it down, pause, ask a few questions, clarify.  That alone can be your leadership contribution for the day.

Please share your experience of this:  am I getting a distorted view through a training lens, or is this your reality too?

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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2 Responses to Manager or Leader? Why most of us prefer Manager.

  1. Lisa says:

    Hi Michael,
    Interesting and though provoking as usual!

    Having been trained in something called the Leadership Maturity Framework (, I now view the transition from manager to leader as a growth in maturity. Everybody can be a leader if they work to grow their own maturity (referred to also as vertical development). Being able to hold and work with two competing ideas is a mark of a later stage of maturity. This model, and the polarity work of Dr. Barry Johnson (which I learned about a year ago) has changed the way I look at most everything concerned with coaching and learning and development! Even after a year, and lots of percolation, it is still spot on (as you Brits might say).


    • Sounds interesting Lisa. I’m going to have a look into it. The idea of leadership developing with maturity ties in with research into how conflict profiles evolve over time: we become more naturally collaborative as we get older, which would suggest we become more ok with discussion and exploration rather than nailing things as soon as we can.


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