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Work When To Manage And When To Lead: That Is The Question

When To Manage And When To Lead: That Is The Question

Leadership has become a Holy Grail of today’s business.

It improves the team’s performance, leads through change, grows new leaders. Be a leader, not a manager, they say.

Is management an ugly word then?


A good leader will take on a manager’s role when to manage would be the best course of action.

Leading and managing where necessary helps to meet goals, overcome crises and gain a sustainable growth of a business. Thus, knowing when to manage and when to lead is one of the key leadership skills one should aim to develop.   

Management vs Leadership

The difference between management and leadership is in the focus. Management is focused on tasks, while leadership – on vision and people.  

Managing involves setting tasks, maintaining working processes, allocating resources, and supervising work. Such an approach gets things done.

Leading works through communicating a large picture and inspiring people to realize it. A leader would rather coach an employee than tell him exactly what to do. Such approach develops individual employees, fosters trust and support.

Imagine an employee has to sell a definite product.

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A manager will tell what tools to use to generate leads, how many calls need to be done each day, how many emails should be sent and so on.

A leader would tell about all the advantages of the product and benefits from selling it. Thus, employees will decide on their own ways to reach the best results. They may try various approaches or agree on one strategy during a team’s discussion.

Considering different focuses, assessment of management and leadership effectiveness is different too. Good metrics for assessing success in management are:

  • the quality and quantity of produced products
  • quality of provided services,
  • budget efficiency,
  • meeting of the deadlines.

Good leadership may contribute to these results too, but leadership has its own metrics to judge by:    

  • the morale,
  • sense of a team,
  • engagement score,
  • high performers’ resignation rate,
  • absenteeism.

When To Manage

how to manage

Your ideal balance between managing and leading might depend on your management style.

Still, there are some universal cases when to manage rather than lead would be the best thing a leader can do. These include:  

1. Periods of crisis

During a crisis, the staff may be confused and its morale may drop. But these are only symptoms, not causes of organizational problems.

Thus, it’s not the time to deliver motivational speeches or set up discussions. It’s time to address the cause and get rid of the symptoms.

The best way to do this is to assume a manager’s role and take immediate and deliberate decisions to mitigate the crisis.

2. Training inexperienced personnel

Another case of when to manage is when a person is new to the company or takes on new job responsibilities.

Rather than communicate trust that a person can do well, show what to do and set up proper working processes.

Good management gives hands-on experience and gradually leads the person to independent work.

The lack of management might result in failed expectations, confusion and disengagement of a newcomer.

3.  Handling unpopular tasks  

There are some tasks even super-engaged employees will consider boring. The truth is, the most dedicated employees will complete them, and others will try to stay away from them.

Thus, it is more effective to manage unpopular tasks than try to motivate employees to complete them.

There is a benefit in this too. As employees get an equal amount of boring work and are equally monitored for having it done, a sense of fairness rises their morale.

4. Completing projects with tight deadlines

When the deadlines are tight, a team should work like a clock. Each member should know when and how to complete each task.

This requires central management and limits creativity but ensures the expected results.  

While such a situation is the one when to manage is better than to lead, it should not work as an excuse for constant management.

Having too many ‘difficult’ deadlines and ‘challenging’ projects makes teams exhausted and unmotivated.

So again, it’s about finding the right balance.

When To Lead

when to lead

Unnecessary management hampers creativity and makes employees less proactive and reluctant to grow.

Thus, refuse from managing and stick with leading in all these situations:

1. The employees are competent and experienced

Employees that have relevant skills and do their work well do not need extra management.

Managing will only eat up your precious time. Moreover, it will make your employees feel unappreciated and simply bored.

Let them decide on their own what the best way to complete the task would be. Your role here is to lead: rising team’s confidence, communicating trust and sharing in the success.  

2. Employees have skills or experience unique to the task

Neither a leader nor a manager should be an I-know-everything-better person. Learn to recognize and grow unique skills in team members and delegate tasks to those who will handle it best of all.

In delegating, you recognize a person’s capacity to complete the task. Thus, the management part should be over. Further directing and close monitoring will simply ruin it all.

3. The team is trying new approaches

If your team is trying a new untested approach, all members should try their own ways of going about it. Doing so, they will be able to suggest ways to adopt new approaches to existing practices.

If you wear a manager’s hat here and make your assumptions a final truth, you risk missing out on your teams’ ideas.

So be a leader: launch open discussions, listen to offers, dispel concerns, show the relevance of new approaches to the goal.

Concluding Thoughts

Management and leadership are different, but they also complement each other. The choice is not between managing or leading a team, it’s between when to manage and when to lead.

Crises, projects with tight deadlines, inexperienced personnel, and unpopular tasks should better be managed. And a good leader knows that.   

What signals help you decide when to manage and when to lead your team? Share it with us in a comment below.

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