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Management versus Leadership: How to Excel in Both Roles

A balance between soft and hard skills is necessary to succeed as a lab manager

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD, is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as...

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Management and leadership. The roles are pieces of the same puzzle—to build a successful lab with a culture of growth and respect—yet they have distinct differences. What are these differences? How can a lab manager excel at being both a manager and a leader? And why is this the goal? This article answers these questions by drawing on the expertise of three leadership coaches with decades of experience in a lab environment.

What are the differences between management and leadership?

A manager usually has an eponymous title and is focused on directing a task while a leader is focused on developing people on their teams and might not have a straightforward title. “Leadership and management have many shared elements, including creating direction, setting goals, providing feedback, and resolving conflict, and the difference lies in the fulfilment versus performance approach to these elements,” notes Frank Croswell, a leadership coach with 30 years of experience, whose portfolio includes providing leadership training to AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Roche. 

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Though leaders and managers share four key elements1, their approach to these responsibilities often differs. It is important to reiterate that it should not be an either/or situation but rather Yin and Yang.

Creating direction. Leaders inspire teams to contribute to something bigger than themselves (“Why are we doing this work at all?”), while connecting to each member’s individual purpose. Managers set clear and concise directions, laying out the operational work and connecting it with organizational purpose and business outcomes. 

Setting goals. Leaders create goals from an inspiring point of view; helping team members align the goals with their health and well-being as well as broader and meaningful issues. Tywauna Wilson, leadership coach with nearly two decades of experience and president of Trendy Elite Coaching and Consulting, adds that leaders secure buy-in and input from their teams on how these goals will be achieved, whereas managers usually set specific and concise goals using a directive-based communication style.

Every manager needs to complement their technical skills with people skills.

Providing feedback. Leaders focus their feedback on people issues while managers focus on business issues. In this context, leaders tend to establish an open feedback environment where they both seek and give feedback to inspire high performance with a focus on future actions. By creating an open feedback environment, leaders enable individuals to maintain their own performance by taking responsibility for it. In contrast, managers provide feedback focusing on performance progress to date, outline performance requirements and create action plans to achieve goals. Croswell notes the balance of both inspiration (leaders) and expectations (managers) is required for high-performing teams. 

Resolving conflict. Conflict is the collision of unmet needs. How does a leader and manager approach their team’s needs? A leader anticipates the needs of their team and focuses on identifying the root cause of the conflict to prevent it from happening in the future, while a manager responds to the needs usually in a problem-solving mode—focused on here and now, removing obstacles, securing needed resources, and facilitating the movement forward with an action plan. Louise Beretta, a leadership coach with 33 years of experience, adds that when it comes to conflict resolution, leaders explore the soft side of a conflict—empathy, objectivity, and transparency—while managers tend to be on the conflict’s hard (technical) side. Both approaches are needed to manage conflict between management and staff effectively.

Why should a lab manager want to be a good leader?

Management focuses on output and hard (technical) skills while leadership focuses on relationships and soft (people) skills. Beretta provides examples of soft skills such as emotional intelligence, assertiveness, and conflict resolution, while Wilson adds a growth mindset, innovative thinking, and taking risks. Every manager needs to complement their technical skills with people skills. Why? 

The first benefit to elevating your leadership skills is the ability to find unique ways to work with individuals and teams to bring the best out of them. Another advantage is the ability to influence and motivate teammates. With this ability, it is much easier for the lab manager to implement new processes and manage change and the lab effectively. In the end, it is the people who drive the sustainable success of your business. If you want a lab with a culture of growth and respect, you need to know how to work well with people.

How can a lab manager become a good leader?

As leadership is a set of skills, it means it can be taught. Wilson suggests several ways (and we provide several examples of those ways) to master leadership: taking a course in conflict management, public speaking, or lab leadership (like The Laboratory Management in Practice course by LabVine or How to Be a Better Lab Leader at Lab Manager Academy), participating in webinars, reading books (such as Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek), and listening to podcasts (like eLABorate Topics). 

As these can be one-directional, Wilson also suggests attending industry-related conferences (such as the Lab Manager Leadership Summit), which are great for networking, bouncing ideas off others, and learning about new leadership techniques. Other two-directional ways are mentoring and coaching. It is important to note that they are not interchangeable. While a mentor teaches you based on their experience and can fast-track your leadership learning by sharing their journey, a coach brings out your strengths through powerful questions. Both mentors and coaches are great for learning desired leadership skills. 

Ultimately, being a lab leader and manager is a balancing act between fulfillment and performance, not either/or.

Regarding additional education, like a set of courses or even an MBA, Wilson suggests paying attention to the instructor’s experience to ensure the education will be relevant to your workplace. There are also opportunities beyond formal education. As a lab manager, you can cultivate an open feedback environment where you communicate with staff regularly, ask what they need from you as a leader and manager, and get input from staff on ways you can improve your leadership skills.

Ultimately, being a lab leader and manager is a balancing act between fulfillment and performance, not either/or. Since a lab manager leads their team and manages the business, integrating both elements is crucial to creating a successful lab.