This year Microsoft launched it ‘People Ready Business’ marketing campaign which raises the question:  which type of executive is more people-focused – the Leader or the Manager.  Most leaders and managers talk volumes about the importance of their ‘greatest assets’ – people – but who really focuses on it most? 


This subject came up repeatedly in the Leaders in London conference last year.  Colin Powell talked about needing a ‘spark that you want to be around people’ and asserted that you can develop and train that ‘spark’.  He cited the rising political star Barak Obama, Senator from Illinois and likely 2008 US Presidential candidate as an exemplar of this ‘spark’.  Powell went on to talk about the qualities of great leaders:  face reality, have a sense of purpose, build trust and take care of your people.  The last two are both key tenets of ‘people focus’ and Powell has always been a paragon of ‘Manager’ persona leadership.


Whenever I ever hire someone to lead/manage a team, one of the first qualities I try to ascertain is how people focussed they are.  I try to delve into what group activities they participate in outside of work and what role they play in those groups.  Roles that involve initiative and groups that involve a variety of people are strong indicators to me that the person does gravitate toward people and people-driven undertakings due to natural inclination and not because it is a good step for a promotion.


My guess is that most people who look at Leadership and Management would veer in favour of Leaders being more people focused.  Bennis’ notorious Leader/Manager distinction list specifically notes ‘Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people.’  Paul Birch also asserted ‘managers concerned themselves with tasks while leaders concerned themselves with people.’ (from a Wikipedia article now removed).


I would assert that neither Leader nor Manager is inherently more predisposed to being more people focused.  The people perspective is simply a different element altogether.  I have witnessed great leaders and great managers some of whom were both not very focused on people and some of whom were.


In defence of the ‘People Focused Manager’, the Leader focuses on the ends while the Manager focuses on the means…and in most enterprises people are a pretty critical is not most critical ‘means’.  Managers are resource optimisers and as the function ‘human resource’ implies, people are one of the key resources in a business.  Going back to my interviewing, I’ve come to the conclusion that people who are not people focused struggle to be good managers, but I have seen them be good leaders.


I also want to differentiate between ‘people skills’ and ‘people focus.’  Though skills would most typically stem from a people focus, it is not necessarily the case.  That is not to say that great Leaders can’t be great with people.  It’s just to say that it is not a requirement.  Many great leaders in the ‘Leader’ model have demonstrated exceptional ‘people’ skills.  Ronald Regan comes to mind.  Many great ‘Leaders’ were also notoriously weak on people skills.  Admiral Nelson comes to mind.


One thing is for certain and that is to be a great Leader and Manager, one is going to have to master the dimension of bringing out the best in the people being led and managed.  As I’ve already highlighted, Red Auerbach is one of the premier exemplars of a great Leader-Manager combo.  A few quotes from his memoir ‘Let Me Tell You a Story’ describe how strong he was in this capacity: 


“What I’ve always been amazed by is his feel for people.  Back in the old camp days, Bill Bradley would come in to work out.  He was an intern in Washington during his summers at Princetoon.  Even back then he was about as impressive as any young man I’ve ever met.  I can remember all of us sitting around one night talking about him.  Someone said, ‘Now there’s someone who will be president someday.’  Red pulled the cigar out of his mouth and shook his head.  ‘Nope, he won’t be president,’ he said.  ‘He’s too damn honest.  He’ll be a senator or a Supreme Court Justice’” [ed.  Decades later Bradley was one of the most prominent US Senators in Congress and shied away from a movement to draft him into a presidential campaign.]


“[Bob] Knight [another legendary basketball coach] has always studied great coaches – in all sports – and he has studied Red’s success and come to the conclusion that there were very specific reasons why he won as much as he did.  ‘He was one of the first guys, maybe the first guy, who understood the psychology of coaching,’ Knight said.  ‘He and [Vince] Lombardi probably did it better than anyone…He knew you didn’t treat all of the players the same.  Some guys you get on constantly;  others you have to soothe.  He understood winners.  He could take a guy like Frank Ramsey, who might not have had as much pure talent as some other guys, and see greatness in him.”