by Rich Hein

IT Leader or IT Manager? How to Be the Best of Both

Apr 17, 20146 mins
CareersCIOIT Jobs

The best leaders aren't necessarily great managers and great managers aren't always the best leaders. A company needs both types of personalities to be competitive. Here's a look at the separate skills and traits associated with each, so you can be the best leader and/or manager for your IT team.

In his book, “Essential Drucker: Management, the Individual and Society,” Peter F. Drucker says, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

In the real world, management and leadership are hard to separate and yet both sets of distinct skills are needed. Learning the difference between these organizational traits is essential to companies that are trying to grow in the digital age. Without this knowledge, organizations often put leaders in management positions and great managers in leadership positions with anticipated results.

Want to Be an IT Leader or an IT Mangaer? How about both?

Whether you’re an IT executive who needs to decide who to promote into a management role or you’re an IT pro who wants to do everything possible to be both a leader and manager, it’s important to understand what sets these skill sets apart?

Step 1: The Human Factor

Whether you’re a leader or a manager you have to depend on other people to work towards the same goal to get the job done. The old command-and-control style of management has evolved in the tech world because, in many cases, technology has leveled the playing field leaving only the human factor.

“Once you’ve made your user interfaces as good as they can possibly be and eked out every last bit of operational efficiency from your processes, what do you have left? You have your people. You have your ability to inspire your employees to be engaged, productive and motivated,” says Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer of Bunchball, a company that specializes in gamification.

“Smart companies are figuring out that by tapping into this employee motivation, they have a sustainable, repeatable and efficient way to drive business results,” Paharia says.

We all have seen how over the years organizations have tried to get more and more with fewer human resources, which means to be competitive at any level you need to get the most out of the people who work around you. Telling people to work harder and faster isn’t the answer. Often time the best way to inspire others is to lead by example.

Traits of Effective Managers

Managing people is a necessary skill to succeed in IT, but it works best on things we already know how to do well. Management is about structure, performing the day-to-day functions that keep the company moving in the right direction.

Managing people often means towing the company line, doing what’s expected on time and within the budget, coordinating resources and planning. According to our experts, there is a lot of commonality between leadership and management traits, but here are the skills they call out as being required to be a successful manager.

  • Project management
  • Vendor management
  • Project responsibility
  • Team/personnel development
  • Delegation/division of labor
  • Problem solving
  • Solid communicator
  • Consistency
  • Honesty
  • Change management

Traits of Effective Managers – Continued

In IT, managers supervise people, projects, relationships and more, but what happens when you get to that next level and suddenly you’re expected to be this visionary leader? A lot of times people crash and burn because, as Pamela Rucker, chairperson for the Women’s Executive Council, likes to say, “What got you to the table, won’t keep you there.”

One of the biggest challenges that managers face, particularly in the tech world, is the pace of change. As the business needs and objectives of the IT organization change so must the manager’s focus. These are necessary and important skills to have but it’s different than leadership.

Skills of Top Leaders

If you want to climb the ladder to the top you’d better develop strong leaderships skills. Leadership is about building a bridge to the future with your vision and empowering those around you to maximize their potential, which in turn should fuel the company’s success. And it’s not just for those in the c-suite. Anyone can display leadership qualities. When we asked our experts to describe the traits of leadership the following traits emerged:

  • Strategic planning/vision
  • Great networking skills
  • Collaboration skills
  • Being a great listener
  • Empathy
  • Motivational
  • Leadership development
  • Influence/persuasion
  • Profit & loss accountability
  • Authenticity
  • Consistency
  • Honesty
  • Great Communication
  • Change program implementation
  • Emotional intelligence

These traits are certainly not exclusive to leaders; there is plenty of room for overlap between the two disciplines. Many of these traits can be learned. Learning and growing is an important part of life. Striving to be more than we are is what defines us as humans.

Leaders Have Vision and the Ability to Articulate It

“What’s really important in motivating people or truly leading people is having an appropriate vision. A lot of it comes back to strategy,” says Peter High, author of “World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs.”

Leaders often have to be willing to forego the standard path, instead blazing their own trail towards their vision of the business’ future. They need a vision and a way of communicating that vision that make people feel included, useful and that they are working towards something bigger.

“A leader is someone who can inspire others. At Bunchball, I am not a manager. No one reports to me. But I am still very much a leader by virtue of my role to inspire people, “says Paharia.

Skills of Top Leaders – Continued

Many CIOs today feel that technology is no longer holding them back. It’s clinging to the old ways of thinking. In order for organizations to move to the next level their people have to step up as leaders to empower, motivate and influence those around them. The companies that recognize this and do it the best will have the competitive edge.

“Here’s the amazing thing about human motivation: If you can tap into it properly, there’s a never-ending supply of it. It’s like a cold fusion engine to drive business outcomes. And whoever figures out how to harness that energy is going to win. Companies that are not engaging employees are doing the bare minimum and are at a comparative disadvantage. They will be left behind, “says Paharia.

Where Do You Stand?

A company can’t survive without the right mix of leaders and managers. Any type of senior technology role when aligned with business goals may call for one or the other. Few are great at both disciplines but with the right game plan, strong managers can become strong leaders and natural leaders can develop effective management skills.

To find out where your strengths lie, put yourself in your coworkers or subordinates shoes. If you asked them whether you were an IT leader or an IT manager, what do you think they would say? Are you authentic? Can you empathize? Do you effectively communicate your vision? If the answer is no to any of these it may be time to reassess. It’s never too late to learn and it’s healthy – and good for your career — to grow.

For more on Leadership, check out, “10 Ways to Be an Authentic IT Leader” or “How to Handle the IT Skills Shortage: Architect Your People“.

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Rich Hein is Managing Editor for He covers IT careers.

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