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Managing vs. Leading: What’s the Difference?

Programming Leadership: Managing vs. Leading: What’s the Difference?

Episode 1

This week on the Programming Leadership podcast, host Marcus Blankenship shares his core beliefs about what it truly means to be a manager. He discusses the differences between the management and leadership and highlights key aspects of leadership that inspires anyone, regardless of job title or natural born talents, to step up and lead with confidence.



Show Notes

  • It’s important to find out what it takes to be a great leader, even if you never get promoted to manager. And that’s exactly what the the Programming Leadership podcast will help you figure out.
  • Management is about things and processes, whereas leadership focuses on people — empowering and unleashing others to help them reach their highest potential.
  • Author Gerald Weinberg describes leadership as, “creating an environment where everyone can participate in solving the most important problems.” Read more from his book, Becoming a Technical Leader.
  • Two important things to remember about leadership: 1) Leadership is a skill that can be learned and 2) Leadership is about building (high-quality) relationships.



Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high-performing software teams.


Marcus: Welcome to the Programming Leadership podcast, where we help great coders become great leaders and build happy teams. I’m your host Marcus Blankenship.


Marcus: Today I want to talk to you about my core beliefs. This isn’t where I started my journey leading programmers, this is where I’m at today and frankly, I continue to evolve, but there’s some really important things that I got wrong up front and I don’t want you to make these same mistakes.


Marcus: These core beliefs are really beliefs about what it means to be a manager, and a leader, and empower and all this stuff. It’s confusing, and so today, I want us to get our heads on straight from the very beginning because that is going to make all this difference as we create happy teams and become skilled leaders, and through there, probably things like team lead, tech lead, software manager, director, all that stuff.


Marcus: Of course, I’m not quite being accurate because the reality is, I want you to be a great leader even if you never get promoted. That’s because, frankly, leadership and management are very different things — maybe I’ll just start there.


Marcus: Management is about orienting, possessing, controlling, arranging, dictating, moving around, and resource management of things. So next time you hear anything about management I want you to think the word, things. Let me give you some examples. You manage your money, your manage your time, you manage your code, you manage the servers, you manage lots of resources. Hopefully you manage your calendar. All of these are things that you manage. See, things don’t mind being managed. In many ways that’s the responsible adulting thing to do, is when you have money you need to manage your money so that you can do with your money what you, the manager of the money wants to do, and the money doesn’t object. Heck, the source code doesn’t mind if you manage it, the server doesn’t care. Of course we could get into a situation someday with AI where that’s not the case, but that’s not where we are today.


Marcus: So if that’s what managing is, and I want to make it clear that managing is about things, and sometimes managing is about processes. We setup a process. We talk about managing a project, managing the process. Maybe you work in an Agile process. Maybe you work in Waterfall, it still happens. Maybe you work in CHAOS. Whatever your process, it probably at some point started life as a flow chart or diagram with some discrete steps where you or someone else sat down and thought, “This is the way things are going to go.”


Marcus: If you’re like most of us, you probably pulled your software development process out of a book which had the word agile or scrum on it, and it described to you the process. So maybe part of your job is managing the process. The process doesn’t mind if you’re managing it, except now things get a little wrinkly because the other side of all this is the idea of leadership. Well what is leadership?


Marcus: Well let’s use a silly example. Do you lead your money? Do you lead your time? Do you lead your code? Do you lead your servers? No, you don’t lead any of those things. That’s ridiculous because those things don’t follow. Ahh, we lead people. And when we learn that leading people has very little to do with management, promotions, titles, formal authority, or any of that stuff that we get confused in our head, now all of the sudden things start to get a little clearer.


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Marcus: So let’s go back to this idea of managing versus leading. So if we’ve got an idea of what managing is, arranging, resource management, moving around parts, assembling, doing something with things to achieve an outcome, and we understand that leading is different, maybe we could use a definition for leadership.


Marcus: I’m going to go to my friend Jerry Weinberg’s definition of leadership. In the book, Becoming a Technical Leader, which I highly recommend, Gerry says that leadership is creating an environment where everyone can participate in solving the most important problems. Let me just say that again because it’s got some really important parts. Leadership is creating an environment. In fact, I actually think he says leadership is the process of creating an environment where everyone can work on the most important problems.


Marcus: The reason most programmers leave their jobs today is not money. It is absolutely though, something related to that definition of leadership in my opinion. I I talk to a lot of engineers and a lot of engineering managers and the thing I hear so consistently is, “I just couldn’t work to my full potential.” Did you notice that in that definition of leadership where we’re creating an environment where everyone can work on the most important problems? We are leveraging the power of the team and the individuals to work on things that matter. That’s leadership.


Marcus: Leadership is not telling. We’re going to get into a lot of tactics, but at the heart of it, you’ve got to understand that leadership is about empowering and unleashing people. Creating this environment, Gerry says. He goes on to define four key aspects, four key activities of this kind of leadership: motivating, organizing, innovating or information, and jiggles, and we’ll hit on those another time. I just want you to get that definition solidly in your head. I’m going to say it one more time, okay, say it with me, leadership is the process of creating an environment where everyone can contribute to solving the hardest problems.


Marcus: My hypothesis would be that people who are in an environment where they are working to solve the hardest problems, those people aren’t going anywhere. Those people are not leaving. Okay, in fact those people become addicted to problem solving and they love working for a boss that asks them to solve hard problems. That empowers them and creates an environment where they can do so.


Marcus: Alright, where was I. Ahh, leadership. So, I want you to think about the place you work today. I want you to imagine the managers that work there. The managers, I’m going to use the word manager to mean somebody who got a promotion or has a particular title. We could call these people also, appointed leaders, but unfortunately, many managers lack real leadership skill.


Marcus: Where you work today there are people who are managers. Team lead, tech lead, lead programmer, software manager, department manager, lots of titles all the way up to CTO and the owner of the company, but I want you to now turn your attention to leaders. Can you think of someone who works at your company who works with you, maybe even on your team who is a leader, but not an appointed manager? Can you think who that might be? Can you find that person? That person that creates an environment where everyone can contribute. That person who informally motivates, organizes, adds information, maybe even jiggles the team when they get stuck. That person who doesn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do, but is proactively helping to bring the team forward to enable people to do their best work.


Marcus: I would bet a million dollars that you can think of someone right now. This leader that maybe you’d look up to them, maybe you actually are them, but they are not a manager. Yet they are doing the work of leading, and we know that they’re doing the work of leading not just because they’re out there doing activities, but because you have identified them naturally as someone you would follow. That’s what we do when we see leaders. When we see leaders we respect, we follow them, we appreciate them, we say, “Boy, that person makes every project better. I want to be on a team with that person.” That’s the kind of leader that I think all of these appointed managers need to become.


Marcus: If you’re listening to this podcast, the Programming Leadership podcast, I want this to be tools and ideas for you, the leader who is either ready to lead from within the team, or is ready to move from simply an appointed manager over to a real leader that people follow.


Marcus: Alright, at this point you might be thinking, “Marcus, come on, I’m not a natural leader. I ain’t a born leader. I’m not leading anything, so therefore I’ll never lead anything.” That’s exactly what I felt when I started programming. Not only did I not want to be a leader, no one had ever accused me of being a natural leader.


Marcus: In Jerry Weinberg’s book, Becoming a Technical Leader, he starts out by describing how everybody kept pushing him into leadership because he was so smart. He was a genius, and yeah he was, but he actively resisted leadership for a long time, instead choosing to do other activities. He just kept getting pulled back in. I resonate with that except, frankly, nobody ever said, “Marcus, you’re a natural leader. A born leader of men. You’re charismatic and outgoing.” No, no, that didn’t work for me.


Marcus: So if you’re sitting here listening to this thinking that this podcast isn’t for you because you’re not an extrovert, no one’s ever accused you of being a natural leader, and you’re not actually sure that this leadership thing is for you, let me assert that you’re in good company, okay? You’re amongst friends. I say that because the kind of leadership I believe in is very, very specific and it has two key parts.


Marcus: First, I believe leadership is a skill that can be learned. If you are listening to this and you resonated with the fact that you used to be or are a software engineer, surprise and congratulations, you have learned a great deal in your life and you can absolutely learn the skills it takes to be a leader.


Marcus: The second, is that the skills it takes to be a leader of people, whether formally or informally, are very different than the skills you have established and built by interacting with the compiler, with your computer. So it’s a different kind of skill but that does not mean it is not a skill that you can learn. It is, it is learned and I want you to get your head around this growth mindset and we’re going to return to this idea.


Marcus: If you’re currently between books, I want you to run out and buy Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset because it will rock your world — it did mine. Now, I want us to try and adopt the growth mindset because I want you to just get your arms around the fact that leading is a skill that can be learned.


Marcus: The next thing I want you to understand is that the view of leadership that I teach, that I believe in, and ultimately I think it’s the only kind of real leadership, is relational leadership. It’s about building high-quality trust by directional relationships with the people that work for and around you.


Marcus: Let’s go back to the person who you thought, “Oh that person’s a leader,” just a few moments ago when I asked you to think about it. What’s your relationship with that person like? My guess is you wouldn’t think they were a leader unless you had a good relationship with them. If you had a bad relationship, you probably would describe them as bossy or controlling but, and possibly because of the quality of relationship you have, you understand that they care about you, they care about the outcomes, and that changes in your mind how you feel about them. My guess is, is anyone you would call a leader in your team who hasn’t been promoted to be an appointed manager, you probably think highly of, and you probably either have a good relationship with, or aspire to have a good relationship with.


Marcus: Notice that, that the relationship we have with people colors if we think they’re a leader or they’re a power hungry bossy boots, a nosy person right? The quality of the relationship is what is different. You might say, “No, that’s not true Marcus. One of them is always telling people what to do. The other one is always helpfully leading people,” but both leading and being powerful or power-crazed, the negative one, both of those require talking. Both of those require a lot of the same external activities. What I would challenge you is different is your perception of them. For good or for bad, for positive or for evil, whatever.


Marcus: Look, here’s the thing. People’s relationships with their leaders is the key reason they think of them as leaders because we don’t follow people we don’t like. It’s a generality, but I’m going to say that if you don’t like your boss, you are doing what they tell you only because you have to, but if you do like your boss, then you think of them as a leader and you say I go with them because I want to. Relational leadership is backed by decades of actual science which we will get into in future episodes, but I just want to set that frame.


Marcus: Those two things for you that A, leadership is learned it is not about extroversion, no one is a born leader, and telling someone what to do does not make you a leader, and B, that leadership is about building relationships. Something that I’m convinced you already know how to do. If you have friends, if you have romantic partners, if you have colleagues with good relationships, guess what? You have all the raw material needed to build positive trust relationships with other people such that they see you as leader, and that you can be an effective leader. That’s all it takes.


Marcus: Alright, future episodes we’re going to dig into this more. This is the Programming Leadership podcast and I’m glad you’re here. Again, thank you so much and look forward to hearing your questions. You can send questions and comments to See you next time.


Announcer: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at, and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed.


Announcer: Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.



1 Comment

  1. Edith Russo on May 12, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    We were just talking about born leaders. I agree with you, i believe we all can learn how to be leaders. I think people mistake charisma for leadership, but I won’t follow a charismatic person if I don’t believe in the vision.

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