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Leader and Manager Relationships

Leader and Manager Relationships

November 30, 2023
Howard Cohen

In any but the smallest organizations, leader and manager roles are occupied by different individuals. In effective organizations, the work of leaders and managers is strongly choreographed. Leaders and managers must learn to dance together lest they trip over each other’s feet. 

Not only must leaders lead and managers manage, but managers must take direction from leaders and leaders must provide guidance for managers. They need to work in sync to accomplish organizational goals.

A dance for two may require a little practice and patience, but it’s not particularly complicated. The leader leads, the manager follows – and it becomes pretty apparent if they are not in rhythm. 

The dances with a leader and multiple managers are more difficult to orchestrate. There are individual dances of the leader with each manager, of course. But the rather more difficult dance is the dance the leader has with the collection of managers – the team.  There it is more difficult to sense when the participants are not in sync. The leader’s job is to keep them all from tripping over one another’s feet.

Leaving the metaphor behind, the leader/manager relationship invites questions. We can ask: How does the leader assure that the managers are working on the right priorities and on the right timeline? Second, how do managers know their work is accomplishing the plans set forth fourth by the leader on behalf of the organization? Third, how do managers work together with the leader as a team?

To address the third question, this coordination is most effective when it follows an annual operational plan that is best crafted by the leader and the managers working together to agree on organizational priorities and strategies for achieving them. Once a plan is settled, the most common mechanism for continuing coordination is the team meeting.

An operational plan sets priorities for the planning period, typically a year for plans that require significant resources to accomplish.

The plan will be most effective if it is the product of the leader and the managers working together to craft it. This is a fairly effective way to secure collective agreement about priorities. 

A plan that is handed down by the leader or a plan that is a collection of individual plans from the managers, will inevitably contain conflicts and disagreements about priorities. It would be a rare organization that had sufficient resources to underwrite every manager’s priorities. Moreover, through the bargaining process managers come to understand one another’s needs and may discover ways to support each other. In short, wise leaders set operational plans in planning meetings that involve all their managers.

Plans need tending. Things happen; circumstances change; good ideas do not always work out in practice. 

An astute leader will bring managers together on a regular basis to report on their plan progress and to offer and accept help from one another when necessary.

Managers are not often inclined to discuss their problems with other managers. Many managers would prefer to meet one on one with the leader to work through their challenges. Although this approach to project implementation may be more comfortable for the managers, it creates problems for the leader. 

These problems might include side bargains, feelings of favoritism and unfairness, jealousy among managers and managers undermining one another’s work. Any of these might happen in collective meetings, but they are more likely to be surfaced and addressed there than in a series of one-on-one conversations.

Maintaining a well-coordinated team should be a major preoccupation of the team’s leader. It takes a lot of communication and a willingness to address issues and make adjustments as problems arise. A good leader needs to develop strategies for staying in touch and sensing problems before they become unmanageable.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.