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What distinguishes a manager from a leader?

I had prepared a topic for this week’s letter, but when Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, it felt so “useless”. So I changed my mind.

As an officer in the Swedish Armed Forces, I relate to a possible similar Swedish situation. I feel strongly for the Ukrainian forces who face an almost impossible situation to defend their country and to maintain the possibility for Ukrainians to freely choose how they want to live their lives.

“All the war propaganda, all the shouting, the lies and the hatred inevitably come from men who do not fight themselves.”

The British writer George Orwell, who took part in the Spanish Civil War.

George Orwell

The above quote leads me to think about leadership and it is something we can learn from I think. Because no matter what happens in Sweden, Europe and the world, we need leadership to create what we want.

George Orwell may well have been thinking of all those around the First World War who would never be affected by the fighting themselves. For these took place in an area that, from the point of view of the whole, was delimited, where young men were sacrificed to other men’s ideas of world domination. The latter category, I suppose, is also included in Orwell’s statement.

And that’s where leadership comes in.

Is a leader someone who sits safely far away and gives orders on how others should behave and act? No, it is not. We see many examples where a king, emperor, general or manager does just that. They tell others how to behave, but see that it doesn’t affect them.

Those who do so show that they only hold a position and are not a true leader.

If you want to do something more than just hold this position, then you also need to step up and earn the right to be called a leader.

So what distinguishes a manager from a leader?

Being a king, emperor or boss is a position that someone has given you. Or as we see examples of around the world; a position taken by someone, through a coup or rigged elections.

That is, to be a manager is to exist and act on the basis of the position I have been given, or taken. Acting as a manager does not mean that those you manage and lead will voluntarily do what you want. This is because management often also involves the use of force to get things done. “Do as I say, or else…”.

What about a leader? Well, a leader is someone you deserve to be called. Leaders can never be taken or awarded by a title. Leaders are earned by having people who look up to you and volunteer to support you.

A leader can be formal or informal.

Being a formal leader means that you also hold a title of manager with an associated mandate. If you are an informal leader, you have no such title and no formal mandate. Both are in your business. Both have great power. And both need to be identified and taken into account.

Do you see who in your business is a manager and who is a leader?

One who was not a leader

Returning to the First World War, the leadership shown by General Douglas Haig was an example. It is well written how he himself sat far behind his own lines and commented on attack after attack in a hopeless strategy that cost enormous suffering. For no profit at all.

In the Battle of the Somme, the British lost over 400,000 men, and achieved nothing. 400,000 men…it makes me sick.

General Haig, however, did not feel the difficulties as he set himself up in a fine castle with courtship, cherries and fine dinners. The distance to the soldiers in the mud, the diseases and death could not be greater.

General Haig was certainly not a leader, but only a boss.

Follow me, forward!

When I was in the officer training college, I remember from the leadership studies what made Israel so successful in their various battles. As you may recall, they were immediately attacked after the announcement of the country in 1949. Since then, they have been involved in many wars in and around their country.

Without going into politics, which is not the point, it can be said that the forces that were outnumbered by the attackers were able to repel these attacks. From a leadership perspective, there is one thing that I took away.

It was that an Israeli officer was trained to say “Follow me, forward!”. This is in contrast to sitting far behind the lines and commanding thousands of men here and there, without direct contact with reality.

However, this meant that Israel has over the years suffered very large losses of officers. However, it made the units that saw their leaders betting with them and sharing their truly, also become leaders that they voluntarily chose to follow.

This meant that smaller units with leaders as officers could stand up to larger units with commanders as officers. Do you see the difference and the power of having and being a leader?


Someone who is just a boss recommends others to do as he or she pleases.

Someone who is also a leader shows the way and shares the hardships with their colleagues.

What does it look like at your place?

  • What would it do for your organisation if you had more leaders than managers?
  • What could you achieve?
  • What would the working environment be like?
  • What added value could the customer, whatever you call them, get from your business?

Now to turn around and get back to the war in Ukraine, I hope that Ukraine can prove to have more leaders than commanders in its defense forces and that, like Israel, it can withstand the onslaught of an aggressor with greater numbers of everything. I hope that in this way they will stand up to Russia.

Whatever the outcome, I believe that our way of life with democracy, human rights and freedom will always win in the long run.