Back in the day, I found myself climbing the corporate ladder at a Fortune 500 company. It was all about the hustle, the bustle, and quite frankly, a whole lot of counting beans. I was a manager, not a beanstalk planter.

One particular instance, I’ll never forget. I was this manager tasked with overseeing a high-stakes project, kind of like a diamond cutter given the Queen’s jewels. I was all about the numbers, constantly asking for updates, progress reports, and whatever else my managerial handbook told me to do. Only to realize, much to my horror, that my obsession with counting value, with getting those damn reports, was detracting from the very value I was supposed to nurture. That was my ‘diamond cutter’ moment. I was screwing things up, not because I wasn’t working hard, but because I was working hard at the wrong things.

And that’s when it hit me. There’s this blurred line, almost like a smudged fingerprint, between being a manager and being a leader. It’s not about a title change or a fancier office, but a shift in perspective, in approach, and hell, even in your heart.

You see, there are three fundamental differences between managers and leaders, and no, it’s not about who gets the bigger coffee cup. First off, it’s about value – are you counting it or creating it? Secondly, are you commanding circles of power or cultivating circles of influence? And lastly, are you managing work or leading people?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, aren’t managers and leaders the same thing? Isn’t it all about getting people to do stuff?” Well, let me stop you right there. That’s a common misconception, like thinking a cup of instant coffee is the same as a cup of freshly brewed artisanal java. Hell no! Manager does not equal leader. Period.

Alright, buckle up, folks. It’s about to get real. We’re about to dive headfirst into what separates the managers from the leaders, and trust me, it’s more than just the beans.

The Real Skinny: Value Counting vs. Value Creation

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What’s up with this value counting versus value creation stuff? And what’s this about beans?

Well, here’s the skinny. Managers, bless their hearts, are often like bean counters. They’re tasked with keeping track of things, making sure everything’s running smoothly, checking off those boxes. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, right? We need people to make sure all the beans are accounted for. Take for example, that ‘productive’ manager who’s always asking for progress reports, always keeping track of every minute detail. It’s all about the numbers, the output, the bottom line.

But here’s the twist: in the mad dash to count value, they can sometimes end up subtracting it. Constant distractions, micromanaging, and excessive focus on numbers can often leave the team disoriented and demoralized. Remember my ‘diamond cutter’ moment? It was precisely that – I was so focused on counting that I was subtracting value instead of adding it.

On the flip side, you’ve got leaders. And leaders? They’re not bean counters; they’re tree planters. Instead of obsessing over how many beans we’ve got, they’re out there planting seeds, nurturing growth, and creating value. It’s about empowering the team, giving them the tools, resources, and guidance they need to generate more value than a spreadsheet ever could.

Think about it – are you a bean counter or a tree planter? Are you subtracting value with your incessant need for numbers, or are you creating value by focusing on growth, development, and big-picture goals?

Now, let’s clear some cobwebs here. Counting value isn’t evil, and it doesn’t make you a villain in a corporate saga. But if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re missing out on the real magic – creating value. This isn’t a game of ‘either-or’, but rather a shift in perspective. It’s not just about the beans in the jar; it’s about the potential trees they can grow into.

Power Circles vs. Influence Circles: Who’s Got Your Back?

Alright, folks, let’s continue our journey and explore another critical difference – the whole power circle versus influence circle conundrum.

In the corporate world, we often hear people use the phrase ‘circles of power.’ It sounds cool and executive-like, right? Picture the typical manager – commanding, exerting authority, with a team of subordinates. This is a power circle. It’s about hierarchy, command, control, and it’s a realm where managers reign supreme. You know the micromanaging boss that everyone complains about over drinks? Yeah, that’s a classic example of a power circle fanatic.

But you know what’s even cooler than a power circle? An influence circle. And this is where leaders shine. Unlike a power circle, an influence circle isn’t about hierarchy or command. It’s about inspiring people, earning their respect, and influencing their actions and decisions, often beyond the organizational chart. It’s not about bossing people around but about getting them to want to do what needs to be done.

There’s a huge misconception out there that leadership is about being on top, about being the boss. But let me tell you something: leadership isn’t about being on top; it’s about being at the center. It’s about being that person people turn to for guidance and advice, regardless of whether you’re their boss or not.

It’s easy to sit in an office and command a power circle. Anyone can do that with the right title. But influence? Now, that’s harder to come by. Influence has to be earned. It comes from respect, trust, and demonstrating time and time again that you’ve got what it takes.

So, ask yourself this: are you sitting in a circle of power or standing in a circle of influence? Do people listen to you because they have to, or because they want to? Because let me tell you something, there’s a world of difference between the two.

The People-Leaders vs. The Work-Managers: Whose Parade Would You March In?

Okay, so now that we’ve tackled the power versus influence dilemma, let’s dive into the third critical difference between managers and leaders: people-oriented versus task-oriented mindsets. This one is especially juicy, so brace yourselves.

Work-Managers – yep, you guessed it – they’re the ones who are all about the task. They’re the efficiency gods who can squeeze every ounce of productivity out of a team. Their focus? The job at hand, the deadline, the bottom line. They’re excellent at driving tasks to completion, and they thrive on charts, metrics, reports. Think of them as the corporate world’s taskmasters.

And then, on the other side of the spectrum, we’ve got the People-Leaders. These folks, they’ve got a different drumbeat. They’re not just about what needs to get done, but who’s doing it and how they’re feeling. They’re the visionary inspirers who know how to motivate their team to achieve more. They don’t just see employees, they see individuals with unique strengths, aspirations, and potential.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “Well, it’s good to be efficient and get things done. Isn’t that what business is all about?” Sure, getting things done is crucial. But here’s the thing: focusing solely on tasks and overlooking the people who perform these tasks is like admiring the car but ignoring the driver.

By prioritizing people over tasks, leaders inspire loyalty, cultivate creativity, and build teams that are motivated, engaged, and committed. And guess what happens when you have a team like that? Productivity and performance skyrocket. Tasks get done, and they get done well.

So, you gotta ask yourself: Are you a Work-Manager or a People-Leader? Are you more interested in the task at hand or the people at your side? Are you more of a taskmaster or an inspirer? The answer could be the difference between being a manager and being a leader.

Test Time: Are You Ready to Quit Counting and Start Planting?

Right, now that we’ve delved into the crux of the matter, it’s time to put the theories to the test. You ready? Okay, don’t freak out – there’s no pop quiz or dissertation to submit. This test isn’t about regurgitating definitions or principles; it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty in the real world of leadership. Here goes.

First up, I want you to invite your team for a casual chat. And no, we ain’t talking about work stuff here. No deadlines, no performance metrics, no budget cuts. We’re talking vision, purpose, aspirations, the bigger picture. Sound a bit “fluffy”? Maybe. But trust me, these conversations are where the real magic happens.

If you find that you and your team can discuss the bigger vision, the overarching purpose, and the shared aspirations without defaulting back to talking about work tasks, that’s a clear sign you’ve moved into the realm of leadership. It’s about more than just ticking boxes and crossing tasks off your to-do list. You’re building shared goals, shared dreams, and, ultimately, a shared commitment to making those dreams a reality.

Now, if after this exercise you find yourself itching to get back to your spreadsheets and emails, don’t beat yourself up. Some of us are hard-wired bean counters, and that’s okay. But if you want to be a leader, you need to start shifting your focus. Instead of getting caught up in the minutiae, think about the bigger picture, the longer game, the broader vision.

Still unsure if you’re a leader or a manager? Here’s a little bit of humor to lighten the mood: You might still be a bean counter if the only trees you’re interested in are decision trees in a strategic planning session. Jokes aside, it’s about fostering growth and development, not just measuring output.


We’ve debunked some misconceptions, highlighted the critical differences, and hopefully started to shift some mindsets. So, are you ready to ditch the abacus and grab the shovel?

In all seriousness though, remember this: being a manager and being a leader are not the same thing. They each have their place, sure. But in the long run, it’s the leaders that make the real difference. Leaders inspire, empower, and cultivate. Leaders are the ones who leave a legacy, long after they’ve moved on.

Why? Because leadership isn’t about standing over people with a whip, cracking it every time they step out of line or slow down. No, leadership is about walking with your people, helping them grow and develop, and creating a shared vision that everyone is invested in. It’s about planting those damn trees, watching them grow, and enjoying the shade together.

So, what’s it gonna be? You wanna stick to counting beans, or are you ready to join me out here and start planting some trees? Remember, the world needs more tree planters. We’ve got enough bean counters as it is.

About the Author: Geoffrey Byers
Geoffrey is one of the world's foremost Designers. He is also a Serial Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Mad Scientist. Hypothesis-Driven experimentation is his love language.