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The fundamental difference between leading and managing: influence versus direction

November 25, 2015
Borderless Leadership

Leaders influence. Managers direct. While it may not be that black and white, leaders generally do focus on what matters and why as managers focus on how.

Both use different forms of influence and direction at different times. But leaders have a bias to influencing by inspiring and enabling through advice and counsel while managers have a bias to command and control.

Coca-Cola’s Doug Ivester was crystal clear on the difference. Sometimes he’d come to us and say, “This is your decision to make. I’d like to give you my thoughts as input.”

Since he was the CEO, we always considered his thoughts. Most of the time we did things the way he suggested. Sometimes we disagreed. We quickly learned that going back to the CEO and telling him that we decided he didn’t know what he was talking about did not make for pleasant meetings. But it did work when we went back to him and said, “Wanted to follow up on the decision we made on this subject. After we talked to you, we did some more digging and uncovered five things that you could not have known about. Given those new findings, we decided to go a different direction than what you had suggested.”

He was fine with that.

Other times he’d say, “See these stripes. I am the CEO of this company. I’m going to give you some direction which you will follow.”

It was extraordinarily helpful to know when he was giving us input for us to consider in our decision and when he was giving us no choice but to follow his direction.

Decision versus input

The more companies I help with their executive onboarding and team onboarding, the more I’m becoming convinced that clarifying decisions versus input solves a whole host of other problems.

The most important thing for any two people to understand as they are working together is which of them is going to make which decisions so they know when they should be deciding and when they should be providing input into the others’ decision.

CEOs and boards are a case in point. It’s important for all the players to be clear on when the board is deciding versus advising and when the CEO is deciding and informing versus recommending.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, in general, for issues of:

  • Governance: the board should decide and the CEO should recommend and implement.
  • Strategy and long-term and annual plans including P&L, cash flows and balance sheets: the board should decide and the CEO should recommend and implement.
  • Operations: the CEO should decide and lead and the board should advise and be kept informed.
  • Organization: the CEO should decide and lead and the board should advise and be kept informed.

Decision versus input for partners

In any organization, there are natural (and unnatural) partners. It’s helpful for these partners to be clear on which of them is deciding and which of them is influencing which decisions.

Take the case of a magazine publisher and editor-in-chief. They must work together as partners and communicate all the time. In general, it seems to work best if the editor-in-chief advises on marketing and pricing while the publisher makes those decisions. Conversely, the publisher should advise on content while the editor-in-chief makes those decisions.


Many have found the RACI framework helpful:

  • Accountable: Answerable for correct and thorough completion of deliverable or task.
  • Responsible: Does work defined and delegated by accountable person.
  • Consulted: Provides input and advice (Two-way communication)
  • Informed: Kept up-to-date (One-way communication)

Note the accountable person may answer to a higher approving or commissioning authority that delegates the task or project to that accountable person. RACI applies within the task or project.

Implications for you

Think input versus decide. For each important decision, clarify who makes the decision and who is providing input to the person making the decision.

By George Bradt

Source: Forbes

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