From Manager to Leader: Here’s What It Takes to Move to the Next Level


Middle manager is not the most glamorous position. We can’t help but have images of Dilbert pop into our head. While the position is necessary, it feels like there are far too many middle managers in the corporate world. In sales, companies are hesitant to promote truly excellent sales people because the most valuable thing a salesperson can do for a company is more sales. They become less valuable as a manager. This is true for a lot of companies. That leads to the suspicion that managers are not necessarily the most competent people in the company.

The entry-level management position is a position no one really wants. It is a stepping stone to the next level which is usually much more desirable. Middle-managers are often people experiencing career paralysis. They have figured out enough to get where they are, but have no idea how to make it to the next plateau. These are the people who often get passed over for the next promotion without knowing why. The key is understanding the difference between managing and leading. Here are a few examples that will help explain the concept:

Managers implement other people’s big ideas. A warehouse manager sees the problems associated with their environment, such as having to take multiple people off of other jobs for team lifts to move bulky, heavy objects. The manager knows certain injuries are likely even when the moving is done carefully. They know there will be an inevitable loss of productivity in the process because more than one person has to do the job. This manager looks for better forklifts, hand trucks, and lifting belts, but they don’t solve every problem.

The leader looks for something revolutionary like a powered exoskeleton suit that can augment the operator’s strength and enable them to move difficult objects without pulling other workers from their assignments. These are the types of innovations you would expect from leaders in the industry, and the types of solutions leaders in a company will source.

A manager envisions faster horses while a leader envisions an automobile. Managers seek to leverage pre-existing solutions while leaders look for new ideas. Managers manage problems while leaders solve them.

Performance in a Crisis

If you perform well when everything is running smoothly, you are manager material. But a leader is someone who performs well in a crisis. When things start falling apart, managers look to leaders for help. There is a “show must go on” mentality leaders have that managers often lack. What happens when the printer is down and the network is slow? Managers wring their hands while leaders find creative ways to get the contracts signed and delivered.

Some companies are in crisis mode all the time. There is always a brush fire to put out. Three people didn’t show up for their shift. There is a spill that needs attention right away and no custodial staff to be found. There is a line out the door and customers are getting upset. There is always something. That’s business. Making it work despite the crisis is what differentiates leaders from managers.

No Fear of Failure

Great leaders have to fail. All innovators know that failure is a prerequisite to invention. If you only take the safe route that ensures you will never fail, then you will most certainly never become a leader. That said, there are good ways and bad ways to fail. Don’t fail because,

  • You refused to listen to good advice
  • You tried to do everything yourself
  • You failed to devote the proper resources to the task

The only thing that your company can learn from those failures is that you’re a bad manager. In football, there is no glory in completing a short pass in a long-yardage situation. You still fail to achieve your goal. The same is true in business. If you are likely to fail anyway, fail while swinging for the fences.

Don’t let your career go stagnant in middle-management. Think of it as a testing ground to discover if you are ready for the job you really want. Show that you are a leader by being first with big ideas, performing well in a crisis, and daring to fail on the road to innovation.