Stop Using “Manager” as a Dirty Word!

Stop Using “Manager” as a Dirty Word!

If you read articles and books about leadership I can guarantee you’ve seen it. Perhaps you’ve even done it.

I am talking about using the term “manager” as a dirty word.

I get it. When talking about leadership, it is helpful to contrast good qualities to strive for with bad qualities using personas (good cop, bad cop). But please stop portraying the good as “leader” and the bad as “manager.” Pick another term to represent the bad!

Here are a few reasons why.

Who decided “manager” was negative?

When did “manager” become a negative term? Who decided to deride managers by making the term synonymous with “bad leader” or “ineffective leader”? And what about all the very effective managers out there who lead well on a daily basis?

Can’t we pick a better contrast to leader? One that doesn’t pick on a specific group of leaders?

Most people can’t pick their title.

It is a reality that in many organizations the term “manager” is an official title. Shift manager. Assistant manager. Sales manager. Customer service manager. Project manager. People in these positions didn’t choose the title that is on their business card. Someone else in the organization did.

So stop making them feel bad because of a title. Can’t they still “lead” as a manager? (If you are wondering, no, I do not have manager in my title.)

Have you ever met someone whose actual title was “leader”? If you did, my guess it’s because they were in a position to chose their own title.

Manager is a title. Leader is a category.

“Manager” is a leadership title much like director or coordinator or executive or chief, but “leader” is a broad term not usually used as a title. Contrasting these two terms is like contrasting “book” with “fiction” or “movie” with “romantic comedy”. In reality, managers are a specific category of leaders.

Managers ARE leaders.

Ultimately “managers” are leaders. An organization can only have one CEO or President or whatever term is used for the top leader, but does that mean that the organization only has one “leader”? Of course not.

The title “manager” typically applies to the dozens, or even hundreds, of leaders who lead in the middle and lower levels of the organization. Managers are vital to the operations of any medium to large sized organization. Tiers of leaders are necessary as an organization grows and the top-tier leaders are absolutely dependent on the managers that lead at the lower levels. An organization CANNOT scale without managers who lead well within the degree of latitude they are given.

If an organization has managers who are “bad leaders” isn’t it a reflection on the top-tier leaders who either hired the wrong people or don’t give the right people the leeway they need to lead well at their level?

What is the alternative?

Surely we can come up with a better term to contrast with leader. How about “boss”? It, like leader, is a broad term and not often a job title. I’ve never met someone with the official title boss (though I am guessing there is an exception out there). Would this be a more apt term for contrasting with leader? It is certainly more palatable to me and is one I have seen others use. Or maybe we just say “good leader” and “bad leader”.

The heart of the issue.

What I am saying is that using the term “manager” negatively creates an unnecessary devaluing of lower and mid level leadership positions, when it’s really about good leadership and bad leadership. It’s not that all the articles and books that contrast “manager” with “leader” are wrong in their concepts of what good leadership is, but that it creates a false dichotomy of terms. And, quite frankly, it can come across as arrogant.

The real issue is not whether you are a “manager” or a “leader”, but whether as a manager you lead well.

Instead of insulting managers, we should inspire leaders at ALL levels to continually improve and grow in their leadership…to NOT be satisfied with the negative persona they are so frequently saddled with…to embrace the level of leadership they DO have and to LEAD WELL from where they are!

– How about you? Do you agree or disagree? What term would you suggest we use instead?

  • Rick Martinez

    Hi Jason: I’m a first time reader of your blog and I like what I see–especially this distinction between leader and manager. With great respect, I go one step further with respect to your thesis of “what’s in a title?” Almost all so-called “leaders” have come from the management ranks–and somehow all of the sudden–they have a different title and they are suddenly “leaders” and no longer “managers.” It reminds me of the age-old Peter Principle–where people are promoted from a position of competence to positions of “incompetence,” and it continues that way and as a result all the higher positions are always filled with people who are incompetent, respectfully. Thus, the only truly competent persons are the managers, according to Laurence J. Peters.
    In my young medical days, the most skilled clinician was always made Director–irrespective of interpersonal skills, management qualities, business savvy, or organizational talents, let alone MBA education–which years ago none of us possessed. The most highly skilled doc was the Director or Chief of the Department or even the Hospital Chief, for example. In fact, to mention “business” in the medical world in the old days was absolutely taboo…any capitalistic tendency in a doc and one was out. Today, if a doc is not business savvy, up on the digital and management world and one is out. It’s an honor, today, for a doc to hear he or she is a savvy manager. It connotes and denotes professionalism. And I believe that’s what’s left out of the leadership/management discussion: What it means to be professional.
    As a kid I always asked the dumb questions of my dad. As a young 14 year old undergraduate student I continued to ask dumb questions of my professors. And as a curious young medical student I sought to have answered the meaning of professionalism from my wonderful old professors who I loved. Yet, it wasn’t until I was 20 and practicing medicine under
    the medical license (I needed to be 21 year old to write a prescription back then) of a fabulous old physician in Boston who finally defined professionalism for me–under the auspices of a few shots of tequila and a couple of beers.
    He said: The height of professionalism is when we do our work so well that the people we serve don’t know if it’s our job, or our nature.

    • Rick – Sounds like we have these thoughts in common! The use of language around this topic definitely frustrates me. It tends to communicate an elitism for those who are truly “leaders”. Yet we know that good leadership principles/practices are good no matter where and when they are put into practice. Why not encourage those who are “managers” to learn and adopt good leadership principles and practices??? So my mantra is “learn to lead well where you are” and I believe that will lead to many opportunities.

      BTW – I do like your mentors definition of professionalism! Thanks for sharing.

      • Rick Martinez

        Thank you, Jason. I’d bet one of my girlfriend’s life you’re not only a dynamic leader, you’re also a “good person,” perhaps the highest accolades that can be bestowed on any of us. Not calling a “manager” a “leader” bugs you…for all the right reasons–especially because you know that leadership is leadership, and management is management irrespective of where it’s practiced. It’s about process and outcome–and at the center of it all is PEOPLE. We either inspire our staff to find fulfillment professionally–which, then, is enjoyed personally–or we don’t. Managers do this, and so do leaders.

        And like yourself, I guess if we wanted to make a distinction between leaders and managers, it would probably be with respect to who’s closer to the staff, and thus who’s more a mentor vs. an advisor. Both lead staff members to become more proficient and more knowledgeable in different facets of doing–and sometimes in life, living, and being. Both can have a profound impact on one’s life, transforming it in ways that go beyond mere knowledge and wisdom. In their scopes of influence, it seems there is one difference. It is centered in the heart of advisor and mentor. Advisors sincerely want us to learn and grow. Mentors, though, passionately want us to outgrow them. Is a mentor a manager or a leader?
        Jason, thanks again for some stimulating writing and thought.

        • Thanks Rick. I’d much rather be known for how I highly I value people rather than how high I ascend in the official ranks of leadership.

          I like the distinction you make between mentor and advisor. Your perspective is greatly appreciated!