One of my favorite leadership authors, Warren Bennis, once described the difference between managers and leaders with the expression “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”  Think about that for a moment.  “Doing the right thing” means that rather than just perfecting all the things they currently do, leaders must have the ability to step back and question whether the things they are doing actually matter.

Your team looks to you to set direction and clarify their priorities.  As a manager, you help ensure that your team’s work is done consistently and produces the intended results.  That’s doing things right.  However, as a leader you will have to shift from being good at getting the work done to being able to decide what work should be done.  You can’t just follow the directions on the map, put your head down and work hard:  Your job is to draw a new map by setting a clear direction and then determining the steps that will help you get there.

This shift in approach is difficult for many leaders to make. Many front line and mid level managers are good at doing things right:  taking direction from their superiors, following the rules, and focusing on getting their work done.  Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing:  being a hard worker is a great trait to have.  “Doing the right thing” requires a different set of capabilities.  It requires you to step back from the day-to-day details, clarify the primary goals you are trying to achieve, and then question whether the team is most effectively moving toward those goals.  It also means that you may not be able to always just do what you’re told.   You may have to find appropriate ways to push back on your boss or advocate for change when you see your team spending time on things that detract from the goals you’re trying to achieve.  Here are a few things to consider:

  • Can you clearly articulate what it is about your team’s work that adds value to the business? (why do you do what you do?)
  • Do you have a clear idea of how you would like your team to improve over the next 1-2 years?
  • Is your team clearly aligned with that value proposition?
  • If you were to hand off some of part of your team to someone else, could you clearly describe how that part of the team adds value?
  • Would you be proud of what you have achieved with that team and could you point to why it is better now than it was when you first took responsibility for it?