The Basics of Managing as a Leader

Effective management and leadership are vital in these times of complexity and fast change in organizations. But while good management, as it has been defined in the past, is critically important in the day-to-day operation of an organization, it is not enough to help an organization move towards a vision. In the past, managers have been taught to focus on setting goals, planning, motivating employees, and coaching. While all of these activities are important, they are not enough to help managers also be leaders of change.

What do we mean by leader in this context? A leader is someone who guides an organization and its people towards a future vision for the organization. A leader recognizes the opportunities inherent in organizational change and makes things happen to realize that change. A leader has integrity, credibility and instills the trust of others in the organization to move towards this organizational change.

How can a manager manage as a leader? Here are five critical factors to successfully managing as a leader:

1. Know yourself

Leaders understand themselves and what they offer to the organization. Each leader has a distinctive, personal style, and each leader recognizes that they will make changes in a way that reflects this style. Leaders who know themselves are able to assess themselves realistically and are comfortable talking about their limitations, as well as their strengths. Self-aware leaders know that feedback is essential to their development, and they are eager to receive constructive criticism. (Golman)

Some managers at MIT may find themselves in a management position because they have been very successful as an individual contributor to a team. In some of these cases, they may not have stepped back and looked at their own strengths and areas for development as a manager and leader. If you are in this situation, we recommend that you complete our Manager as a Leader Self-Assessment tool (Microsoft Word), which will help you gain a deeper understanding of your strengths and areas for development as a manager and leader.

2. Know the organization

A leader's way of leading should be flexible and adaptable to the context and culture of the organization. A single, constant style of leadership would not be effective in all organizations: different organizations require different approaches to leadership.

At MIT, your organization could be the Institute-wide organization, your specific department, or your team within your department. Consequently, there are numerous sub-cultures at MIT within the bigger, Institute-wide culture. Effective managers and leaders understand the context and culture of the different organizations within the larger organization. They then use the strengths of the organizational culture in their efforts to implement change.

To understand an organization’s culture, think about the following:

  • How do things truly get done in the organization?
  • Who have been successful leaders of the organization in the past?
  • Why were they successful?
  • What has the organization been successful for in the past?
  • If you were to ask someone who has worked in the organization for a long time about why things are the way they are, what would they say?

(Adapted from Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide)

Answering these questions should give you some insight into the underlying assumptions and values that drive your organization’s culture. Completing our Understanding Organizational Culture tool (Microsoft Word) will give you a more in-depth understanding of your organization’s culture.

3. Build relationships

Managers who lead effectively pay attention to the interpersonal dimensions of their role as manager and as leader. As a manager, they coach their employees to plan, set goals, and monitor performance (to learn more about coaching, see our article "What is Coaching?"). As a leader, they collaborate and influence people at all levels of the organization, they communicate assertively and effectively across the organization, and they are empathetic to others, regardless of position or authority.

People who effectively build relationships often weave the following communication techniques into their everyday conversations:

  • They ask others questions to learn more about what they really feel or believe (inquiring before advocating)
  • They repeat others’ comments as they hear them without adding their own ideas (allowing the other person to feel they were heard)
  • They understand another person’s point of view from that person’s perspective, not from their own perspective

(Adapted from Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A workbook on Becoming a Leader)

It is critically important that managers who are leaders are able to build credible, trusting relationships with people in their own group and with others across the organization. Because of the complex range of emotions associated with change (fear, resistance, denial), managers who are leaders must be credible and trusted by the people they manage and lead if they are to be successful in leading change. If you would like to see some examples of language that facilitates credible, trusting relationships, see our article, "Build Relationships with your Team through Coaching."

4. Create vision

Creating a vision means that a person can image the future and literally "see" what the future could look like. Someone who creates vision can see opportunities for change, is able to think beyond obstacles, and can recognize what is best for the organization, even if obstacles and challenges to this vision exist in the present situation.

Managers who are leaders may have a vision about how the work in their area could be organized in order to improve efficiencies, or they may see an opportunity to move into a new area or create a new product in the interest of meeting the organization’s strategic goals. Creating vision requires a certain amount of creativity, thinking out-of-the-box, and freedom to explore. Sometimes managers at MIT who are caught in the day-to-day operations of their group may feel too busy to generate the creativity necessary for a vision. Stepping back from the day-to-day responsibilities and reflecting on the big picture can help managers have some of the perspective to create a vision. Holding a retreat at an off-site location can provide the necessary distance from the day-to-day work to have the mental energy to create vision.

Tips to keep in mind about creating a vision:

  • A vision taps into embedded concerns and needs.
  • A vision asserts what you and your colleagues want to create.
  • A vision is something worth going for.
  • A vision provides meaning to the work you and your colleagues do.
  • By definition, a vision is a little cloudy and grand.
  • A vision is simple.
  • A vision provides a starting place from which to get to more and more levels of specificity.

(Adapted from Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader)

5. Manage the day-to-day relationships and operations of your team

The previous four factors, which are critical to success in managing as a leader, are incomplete without a fifth essential factor: good day-to-day management practices. Managers who lead others effectively also exercise the basics of good management practice (coaching, delegating, planning, goal setting, motivating employees) on a day-to-day basis. Consequently, the smooth, efficient day-to-day operation of their group allows them to also be effective leaders. To learn more about good management practice, see our article "What is Coaching?" and consider taking one of our management courses.

Golman, Daniel. "What Makes a Leader," Harvard Business Review, November-December 1998.
Schein, Edgar H., The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1999.