What is the difference between being a Leader and a Manager?

By Bill Conway

The words leadership and management are not opposites, nor do they express the same thing. Some of you may identify more with one of the words, such as seeing your role managing a group of students or an entire school. You may also see your role leading your students or a school. In this short article we’re going to consider both and see if we recognise our own style or leadership or management.

Simon Sinek said, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge”.

This clearly takes a step outside the realm of being in control and is in harmony with many Montessori principles. Hierarchical leadership structures, which are so common in schools, often elevate leaders to god-like status and therefore the resulting actions may be perceived as forcing direction and control, even if it’s not the intent. Eve Poole, author of Leadersmithing warned us of this: “Leadership is not the preserve of an elite. We need too much of it, too urgently, for it not to be fundamentally and radically democratised”.

Leadership qualified by position status and hierarchy had a place, but is no longer preferred in many examples of forward-thinking business models. It is clearly not a part of the relationship between the Montessori guide and students, so I also believe it could be avoided in school administration. But leadership without the hierarchy and control can be messy and confusing if it’s not done well.

Eve Poole refers to leadership with some urgency to democratise it, which I interpret as shared leadership rather than autocratic. If we apply Montessori principles to leadership, then this makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it would be seen as impractical or overly altruistic, but let’s consider the Montessori guide, who has a leadership role in the classroom. A Prepared Adult takes a humble place to guide children’s learning with ‘just enough, at just the right time’. In The Absorbent Mind, Dr Montessori even said, “The children are now working as if I did not exist”, acknowledging the potential in children to self-discipline and drive their own learning. Don’t our teachers also possess this potential?

These definitions of leadership work well for the most part, but what if we feel more like a “manager”? Let’s look at exactly what management is.

The manager asks: “What problems have to be solved, and what are the best ways to achieve results so that people will continue to contribute to this organisation?”

We wouldn’t argue that this isn’t an important role to assume. It makes sense and fits with anyone who feels the urgency to just get things done, whether you’re a teacher in the classroom or a school principal.

Is it wrong?

In the book Manager and Leaders by Abraham Zalesnik, he helps us to see that there are qualities in a manager and a leader which we may want to consider, taking into account what we may be confronted with.

He says managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly – sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance.

Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully.

Which one do you lean towards? Or are you a combination of the two? Let’s look at leadership more deeply as we want to consider this more in the Montessori context.

The Montessori school administrator has a role of leadership to make sure the school operates well, and is managed under the set purpose. We are in leadership of… the school community.

But it also involves a partnership with educators, parents, children, other schools and the community. When we consider partnership, we are in partnership with… our school community.

A third component is the role of stewardship. Stewardship implies “working for…  a greater good, a vision, an ideal and our school’s purpose”. This is where our service to others becomes a part of the administrator’s model. Education, after all, means to “bring forth”. Montessori is education for life. It is also our means to a peaceful world.

Consider how our classrooms and our schools run. The educator and school administrator are leaders, working always in partnership, taking care of, working for, and leading. We also manage the day-to-day challenges that come before us. Ideally, we will sit somewhere in the middle of these three concentric circles, as well as between a leader and manager. When we were thrown into lockdown and closed schools, the manager in us all had to be strong, and continue leading.

The next time you are faced with a big challenge, consider your response in accordance with what needs to be done. Enjoy what leadership and management can do to empower others and create environments which instil a sense of collective effort with collective wisdom.