Managers vs. Leaders

There are times when you come across a quote or thought so clear, it’s worth marveling at.  Each time I read this quote by Alexander Den Heijer, an inspirational speaker, I have one of those moments of awe:

“When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important.  When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important.”

-Alexander Den Heijer

All of us can identify with having a manager in this sense.

If we’re lucky, some of us can also identify with having worked with — or known — true leaders.

Both types of professionals — “managers” and “leaders” as Den Heijer describes them — are supervisors of one or more employees.  But the difference between the two, and what resonates so profoundly in this quote, is their focus.

Managers are focused internally, on themselves. 

Using Den Heijer’s quote, a “manager” sees themselves as most important.  Their decisions are often influenced by how they’ll be perceived by others.  Their ambition and/or fears sometimes come in conflict with their team’s, peer’s, or company’s.  They are often less vulnerable with their coworkers and less willing to share their mistakes and/or learnings so that others may also learn.  Employees of these managers sometimes feel like a tool in a toolbox, rather than an invaluable part of this manager’s team.

Leaders, on the other hand, are focused externally — on everyone else.

Using Den Heijer’s quote, a “leader” sees others as more important than themselves in a work setting.  Leaders are eternally curious about others.  They’re always seeking to learn so that they can provide more value to others.  They find something to learn from every conversation, person and failure.  They believe their role should be to set their team(s) up for success, draw the best out of their employees, and then step of the way.  They often set the spotlight on others, allowing their team members to shine.  Employees of these leaders often feel supported, listened to, well appreciated, and, above all, important.

If you’re a supervisor of employees, you may be wondering… how do I kick my “manager” tendencies to the curb for good?

The biggest change you can make is where you place your focus.  You know you’d like to switch your focus from internal to external; one way to do that is to work on PRESENCE.  

By definition, when you’re focused internally, you’re distracted and not present — especially when you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone else, in a meeting, or working on a project.  Your mind is swirling, thinking about what to say next or how the work may benefit you.  Besides making others feel unimportant, this also can lead to lower work quality, since you’re somewhat distracted.

A leader, by contrast, is wholly present — focused on the moment.  Whether they’re in a one-on-one meeting or on a larger conference call, they’re less likely to turn inward and think about the conversation’s impact on themselves.  Their work quality, then, is higher because they’re not distracted, but perhaps more importantly, their employees are also at their best because of their leadership.

Presence doesn’t come easily or naturally — it takes practice.  There’s a whole genre of mindfulness-based tools and apps that are geared toward improving our ability to stay present at work and in life.  My advice — pick one format to try for three weeks consistently.  If it doesn’t make an impact for you, try another. 

Here are some tried-and-true practices for improving presence:

  • Meditation.  My favorite app is Insight Timer.  You can check out Haven Coaching’s FREE meditations here
  • Yoga, especially “slow flow,” hatha yoga or anything that links movement to breath.
  • Breathwork exercises.  Even simply slowing your breath down and counting in for 4 and out for 4 will make a world of difference when you’re feeling distracted.
  • Journaling.  A consistent practice of timed daily journaling helps with presence.

The key? Doing these practices CONSISTENTLY (read: DAILY or near-daily) to incorporate presence into your life.


What other mindfulness/presence-inducing practices have worked for you?  Please share in comments!








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Haven Coaching