Practitioner’s Viewpoint: Can managers be leaders?

In the first of a new series of regular opinion pieces Rob Jones from Crossrail reflects on change.

I was recently running a workshop on our leadership development programme and, as invariably happens when the topic of leadership comes up for debate, two of my favourite assertions were made. The first is “leadership and management is a semantic debate” and the second is “I can’t be a leader I’m just a manager.”
More Opinion 

How to secure top talent

Train ‘just in time’ to make your messages stick

To provoke some discussion, I introduced a dichotomy published by Bennis & Nanus in 1985 which, boiled down says leaders: do the right things; see people as assets; seek commitment; focus on outcomes; see how things could be done; share information and promote networks. 

Managers on the other hand: do things right; see people as liabilities; seek control, create and follow the rules; focus on how things should be done; seek compliance; value secrecy and use formal authority (hierarchy). Which stirs things up beautifully!
To try and bring things to life a little I played a few clips from the 2009 rebooted Star Trek film where Zachary Quinto as Spock and acting captain of the Enterprise vigorously asserts following the predetermined plan and regrouping with the fleet whilst Acting First Officer Kirk, played by Chris Pine, challenges him saying the arrival of a ‘baddie’ from the future has disrupted the reality, therefore being unpredictable is key.
Through a series of twists and turns Kirk ends up assuming control of the Enterprise and broadcasts a message to the whole crew updating them on the situation and it ends with this quote, “I know you are all expecting to regroup with the fleet, but I’m ordering a pursuit course of the enemy ship to Earth. I want all departments at battle stations and ready in ten minutes. Either we’re going down… or they are. Kirk out.”
As a self-confessed control freak I admit that at times I really struggle with the Kirk way of openly telling it like it is and hoping that people buy in (he did have a military hierarchy and the fact they were millions of miles from home in his favour) and I think, as people professionals, the law and the sense of risk around change naturally leads to a more managerial approach. Running a good process will deliver good outcomes. Or will it?
Imagine for a moment changing the term change management to change leadership and applying the behaviours from Bennis and Nanus. Instead of secretly trying to find the right answer – openly admitting the problem. Rather than focusing on process – focus on the change we need. Instead of rigorously controlling the situation – create a collaborative approach to changing the system and so on.
The cliché is that change is the only constant and I think I would sleep better if change could be planned and implemented in a well orchestrated set piece.
But the reality of individuals within teams, within organisations, within local markets, within national markets, within global markets and so on.
This means that for the moment I’ll have to learn to manage with less sleep but hopefully from time to time deal with my inner control freak and realise that my best opportunity for a great outcome may not be in doing things right but doing the right thing. 
About the author 
Rob Jones is Head of Organisational Effectiveness at Crossrail. You can contact him via


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *