Are you a leader or a manager?

Posted in job description / executive director

Are you a leader or a manager?

Years ago, I came across an article that discussed the difference between a leader and a manager. The author insisted that someone could only be one or the other – there was no middle ground. Back then, the article praised the leader, dismissed the manager, and pushed all my buttons. I was steaming mad. Today, as I think about the terms, I'm calmer, and I realize the author very likely knew next to nothing about what its like to work for a non-profit, especially a small non-profit.

Two flaws in choosing one over the other.

If a leader is a visionary, guiding their organization towards greatness, and a manager is just another one of the workers, checking times sheets for accuracy and paying the bills, then what is a non-profit executive director?

There are two flaws in the argument that a person can only be one or the other.

Looking at the situation from inside a huge company, the CEO, or head of an organization with 100+ employees, probably does have the time to focus on only visioning, greatness, and weekends at their lake house. They’re supported by a massive team, with program staff, departments, admin support, tech support, HR, and janitorial staff. That level of privilege suggests a serious disconnect from the real world of non-profit operations.

The other flaw is thinking that someone can only be one or the other.

Things get very REAL when running a non-profit.

The realities of working for a non-profit are far from the world of a CEO in a high-rise office. Non-profits struggle to find funding each year. They fight hard to squeeze out as many programming dollars as possible, and rarely can afford to pay employees a living wage. No non-profit I know would ever believe they have the luxury of a single employee whose job was predominantly visionary.

The role of a non-profit executive director is, of course, every bit about leading the team to achieving big picture goals. EDs work dang hard to maintain strategic alignment and are fully capable of understanding the big ideas and working towards big dreams. A non-profit executive director steps in and challenges thinking to create the biggest and best vision for the organization. A non-profit executive director IS a leader.

A non-profit executive director is also a manager. They balance the books and write the policies. They call the tech when the copier stops working. They also type up their own reports, take out the garbage, and shop for coffee room supplies. A non-profit executive director IS a manager …and a secretary, and the janitor, and human resources.

The best of both worlds.

Non-profits need both leaders and managers. They NEED both, and they HAVE both. The beauty of a non-profit is that the leader and the manager are all wrapped up in the same person. The executive director.

How will you know if you are a leader AND a manager?

  • You have special spidey-senses that can spot a program that is drifting from its strategic priority, AND you can open that weird safe in the basement of the office.
  • You can step in on a moment’s notice to deliver a report at the AGM when a board member forgets to attend AND run the evening workshop when an employee calls in sick.
  • You provide full ownership data for strategic planning AND phone the bank when they’ve posted a deposit to the wrong account.
  • You take the heat when stakeholders have complaints AND you make sure the kudos go to your team.
  • You keep a keen eye out for strategic partnerships AND you come in on the weekend to mow the walking trail.

Be a leadager!

Don’t get sucked into the argument that you need to choose one over the other. Don’t get belittled into thinking that one is better than the other. Non-profits NEED both. They wouldn’t survive without that talented creature, the ED.

Non-profit executive directors need to embrace being a leader AND a manager. We are proud leadagers!!

Your turn.

Your turn. Do you consider yourself a leader or a manager? What are some of the subtle differences at your non-profit? I want to know! Please use the form on the side of the page to let me know, ..or send me an email, ..or message me on socials.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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