ON vs. IN: A Distinction Between Leading and Managing

Shifting From What You're Supposed to Do, to What You Should Do

Management and leadership are uniquely different. In previous articles I’ve shared the traits that set management and leadership apart, how to manage the tension between the two, and how leaders can resist the lure toward management. Both leadership and management are essential in an organization. Without management, there will be vision without action. Without leadership there will be routine without risk. But with leadership and management, there will be inspiration plus execution.

Another critical distinction in the leadership/management tension is the all too familiar ON vs. IN. Leaders have a responsibility to work ON the organization. They work at the 30,000 foot level, leading with a unique perspective on the organization, and charting a course toward a brighter future. Leaders work ON the organization, endeavoring to help it grow, expand, and multiply.

Managers, on the other hand, work IN the organization. They spend their time ensuring systems and processes are functioning efficiently. They keep the team focused on the day-to-day task at hand. They don’t look up to see where we’re going; instead, they make sure we’re doing what needs to be done to get where the leader said we’re going.

When leaders get bogged down with the IN, they abdicate their responsibility to work ON. Both are important, but ON is the priority for leaders.

If you were once a manager (and now you’re a leader), you’ll especially find yourself tempted to drift back into management mode. The goal of management is to do what we’re supposed to do; the goal of leadership is to do what we should do. One focuses on the past while the other focuses on the future. You can work IN for a season, but in the long-run you’ll drift into predictable mediocrity. You’ll get stuck. Progress will cease.

Leaders lead with a vision for the future, not a system for sameness. Leaders determine what’s next, what’s new, and what’s not. That doesn’t mean that people don’t need systems. Systems actually help you better manage the chaos that organizations experience when they’re growing. But if systems dictate the future, innovation will quickly go by the wayside. Leaders innovate. They work ON not IN.