Are You A Manager or Leader (Part 2)

leadership and management Apr 01, 2018

I wanted to give you a current, real-world example of the distinctions between leadership and management in the technology world. And by that I mean, Tesla and Space X.

As I’m sure you are well aware, Tesla is a manufacturer of fully electric cars and Space X is a commercial space company.

And they are perfect examples of how management and leadership must play together to be successful.


Management versus Leadership

As I stated in Part 1 of my previous post, management and leadership are two sides of the same coin. A good manager must at times be a good leader and a good leader must at times be a good manager.

Both managers and leaders must perform management functions, and therefore my definitions of management and leadership are:

  • Management is management into the known, that is, doing something that it is known how to do it


  • Leadership is management into the unknown, or management of something that has never been done before.

So how do these definitions apply to Tesla and Space X?



The CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, is an excellent example of my definition. He is a clear representation of “two sides of the same coin”, of leadership and management. Here is what I mean.

Tesla builds automobiles. Automobiles have been built since 1769. The first steam-engine powered automobile was built by Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot.

In 1808, Francois Issac de Rivaz designed the first car powered by an internal combustion engine fueled by hydrogen.

In1870 Siiegfried Marcus build the first gasoline powered combustion engineer, which he placed on a pushcart.

Nikolaus Otto patented the four-stroke gasoline internal combustion engine. Then Rudolf Diesel invented the four-stroke diesel engine. Even the battery powered electric cars of today owe their beginning to Anyos Jedik, one of the inventors of the electric motor, and Gaston Plante, who invented the lead-acid battery in 1859.

In 1885, Karl Benz developed a gasoline powered automobile. This was the first “production” vehicle by Benz.

And then, in 1903, Ford began producing and selling the Model A and the Model T became the first mass-produced automobile in 1908.

So if we assume, for the sake of this discussion, that the advent of the Model T was the true beginning of the automobile industry, as we know it today, we humans have been building cars for 110 years.

We know how to build cars. Two axles, four tires, a steering wheel, windshield, doors… we know how to do this. Millions of cars, maybe billions, have been built with these features and in this way. Building this portion of the Tesla automobiles requires management into the known, management of something that has been done before… this is Management.

However, powering the Tesla with a battery that will last 300 miles, take a wide variation in temperatures is a new thing altogether. Not to mention producing these batteries in large numbers.

And driving the wheels is not done with a drive shaft and gears but with four synchronized motors, one at each wheel.  Now that is a new thing altogether.

And manufacturing not by the old style of stamping and machining parts but by new technologies such as 3-D manufacturing processes.  Achieving these tasks requires management into the unknown, management of something that has not been done before… this requires Leadership.

So Elson Musk, according to my definition, moves back and forth between management and leadership depending upon whether what he is managing has been done before or not.


Space X

The same applies to Space X.

We have been building rockets since the 1947. (Humans have been building rockets since the Chinese used them for fireworks.)

However, real rockets, with liquid as well as solid propellant systems have been around for over 70 years.

We know how to build liquid propellant rocket engines. We know how to build propellant injectors. We know how to keep the propellant from sloshing around in zero-g environments. We know how to develop internal guidance systems. We even know how to program a rocket to descend to a soft landing as was done by the Apollo astronauts on the moon. So this requires management of processes that have been done before, perhaps now with some modification, but management into the known, nonetheless. This requires management into the known… Management.

However, no one has built an assembly line to manufacture large rocket systems before Space X starting doing it. No one has used 3-D manufacturing to produce parts for rockets. No one has attempted to bring back a booster from orbital insertion to a soft landing on a ocean barge or on land. And no one has ever had the electronics, the small integrated circuits, and the computer power to have two boosters land, side-by-side, on a pad near the initial launch site. This requires management into the unknown…Leadership.

Therefore, in both cases, Tesla and Space X, Elson Musk must move back and forth between management and leadership.


What does this mean for you?

Most people will never be in a situation like Elon Musk. Unless you are an entrepreneur who is starting a company with a disruptive technology, or you are in some other unique environment where no one has done what you are about to do, most people don’t operate as leaders much of the time.

Therefore, this idea that everyone wants to be a leader all the time is not a possibility. Most people will be managing tasks, processes, and projects that have been done before, but perhaps with a slightly different application or direction.

Leadership opportunities are actually quite rare. My assessment is that most people spend 80% of their time as managers and 20% of their time as leaders.

Now, to be sure, these numbers vary depending upon where you are in the organization and what industry you are in.

Most CEOs can be considered to be leaders 50% of the time and they had better be good managers the other 50% of the time.

On the other hand, a manufacturing floor supervisor will probably spend 90% of his or her time managing and 10% leading. And in this case, the leadership role comes into play if they can develop a new process that streamlines the manufacturing process or increases the quality, for example.


There you have it

So there you have my take on management and leadership. Actually I don’t pay much attention to the words management and leadership most of the time. They are two words that have lost much of their meaning in the work place, in my opinion. People take the words to mean whatever they want them to mean.

My whole approach is you want to be both. You want to be able to Manage tasks that you can learn how to do because they have been done before, and you want to Lead so you can develop new ways of doing things… ways that have never been done before.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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