Software Leadership: Manage by leading

Is it possible to be a good manager, yet a bad leader? Those two skills aren’t necessarily one and the same.

Ryan Haveson

Several years ago, I worked for a guy that I eventually came to describe as a “good manager, but a bad leader.” When I would describe him like that, people understood what I meant. At the same time, however, it seems like a contradiction. Since writing the article, “Leadership Deconstructed,” a few months ago, I’ve had this nagging question in the back of my mind: Is it possible to be a good manager, but a bad leader?

The roles of manager and leader are typically intertwined. There are some organizations in which the leadership direction comes from someone other than your manager, but for most people, their manager and their leader are the same person. This got me thinking, “Are leadership and management actually different skills? If so, what are the differences?”

A manager has many roles, but they all fall into the following five areas:

  • Match the work to the employee’s skill sets: Not all employees have the same skill patterns. For example, some engineers are great at deep technical infrastructure work, while others may be better aligned toward writing UX features. Great managers are always looking to align people with the work at which they excel.
  • Motivate people to do their best work: A manager’s key function is to know what motivates each individual and to figure out ways to coax out that extra bit of effort.
  • Coach and build skills: Almost every time someone describes their best manager, they say something like, “I learned more from her than any other manager I’ve had.”
  • Represent the work of the team to management: The manager has to represent the status and day-to-day progress of the team to management.
  • Adjust the makeup of the team to match the needs of the organization: When business needs change, managers need to constantly assess team makeup and figure out ways to fill the gaps. While they can sometimes address this through skill building, often staffing changes are required. This can involve both hiring and firing.

With this list in mind, I’ll return to the question of whether it’s possible to be a good manager, yet still be a bad leader. The one attribute of leadership that isn’t part of the five different roles is “direction setting.” Is this simply an error of omission in my description, or is it true that, strictly speaking, people management is separate from direction setting?

Set the right direction

Suppose that setting the team direction was done by a central committee or that the team direction was relatively straightforward. In this case, you could imagine a great manager who could drive a team toward success without having great vision or great strategic-thinking abilities.

While there’s a lot of overlap between the roles and skills required to be considered a great manager and a great leader, the emphasis of leadership is on aligning people toward a goal. The emphasis for a manager is around getting the most out of the day-to-day team execution.

Looking back on my “good manager, but bad leader” experience, I realized that direction setting was the missing element. While my boss was great at getting people to do their best work and great at aligning us toward a common goal, the goal he was leading us toward was the wrong one.

At the time, we all suspected this was the case. He was constantly at odds with the top bosses in the organization and was taking us down a high-risk path. However, we all believed he had thought it through and had answers that we just didn’t understand. We thought that ultimately we would be successful.

As a leader, risk taking is part of the job, but if you’re taking a risk that isn’t endorsed by top management, you better be right about the direction, or the consequences can be pretty bad. In this case, the risk didn’t pay off and, ultimately, the project was canceled. Everyone on the team had to find a new job. After putting more than a year of hard work, overtime and energy into the project, having it get suddenly canceled was a big blow to everyone on the team.

Our boss assembled a collection of good people, motivated us to do our best work and got us all aligned toward a common goal. He was helping us learn and grow skills, and he was representing our progress to upper management. We all felt that he was a good manager. But the direction he was leading us in was perilous. Because the risk wasn’t endorsed by management, he put us in a do-or-die situation. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and the result was painful.

So is it possible to be a good manager but a bad leader? That depends on the definitions you want to use for each of the terms.

The one thing that’s clear is that to get great business results, you have to be great at both. Just because you manage your team well and get the most out of them doesn’t mean you don’t have to periodically take a step back and make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Otherwise, someone may one day call you a good manager, but a bad leader.

Ryan Haveson

Ryan Haveson has more than 15 years of experience leading engineering teams and delivering software and services for some of the world’s most recognized brands, including Xbox and Windows. He was a group manager in the Windows Experience team for Windows 8. He and his team designed and delivered end-user and developer-facing features, including the live tile notifications platform and the new Task Manager. He’s currently leading the engineering systems group at Qualcomm Inc. for the Windows/Windows Phone on Snapdragon division in sunny San Diego. Reach him at or at