Are you a leader or a manager?



I’ve been flying on commercial airplanes since I was a very young boy. My dad worked for El Al Airlines as their executive head mechanic and one of our family’s perks was flying for free around the world. Flying was scary at first but my dad  reassured me that an airplane is the safest way to travel. “No plane has ever crashed from turbulence or bad weather” he would always say. “99 percent of the time, a plane will go down due to a pilot error or lack of attention to the airplane’s maintenance”.

The pilot is the most important person on the plane. Without his ability to oversee the plane’s condition, pay close attention to any malfunctions in the system or lead the path of where the plane is going he is not only putting his own life in danger but also the lives of his passengers and crew. He must be totally focused, aware, awake and healthy to do his job well. He isn’t consumed with the ongoing operations that take place inside the cabin - such as cooking the meals, serving the passengers or handling baggage. He has a reliable crew that manages all the little details and keeps the customers happy. When the pilot gets on the intercom system, everyone listens. And when it comes to getting paid, he is the highest paid crew member on the airplane.

A pilot doesn’t manage. He leads. And you are not much different from an airplane pilot. If you are consumed with managing the day to day details of your creative business, who is flying your plane? The growth of your business depends on the level of leadership you bring to it. This means learning to let go of needing to take care of the minutia, putting together a reliable team you can trust and spending your time being in the captain’s seat.

 This is a role many creative people have a hard time grasping. Taking a leadership position in your business means that you must stop managing things. You must let go of needing to be in control of everything and start delegating most of your day-to-day tasks. This was my a-ha moment in my business: when I realized that I was the one limiting its growth. I was stuck in people-pleasing mode, trying to do things right and feeling like I needed to be in control of every aspect of my business. I was too busy working IN the business to spend time or energy working ON the business.

Instead of focusing on WHAT could be accomplished and created with my business, I was concerned with HOW things should be done. I was busy with procedures, rules and systems instead of vision, outcome and inspiration. In other words, I was being reactive and only had a short-range view.

A manager reacts, a leader creates

Every business needs a good manager. A good manager knows how to react well to situations, how to follow rules and how to get things done. A manager’s eye is always on the bottom line and is in charge of the daily operations. He follows directions well and focuses on systems and structures. That’s an important role in every business. 

But a manager can only have short-range view because he is dealing with what’s coming at  him on a daily basis. He relies on the vision and long-range perspective that his leader provides. He trusts that by keeping the plane  running well and by following the vision of his leader that the business is being steered  is in a prosperous and healthy direction.

Being a leader can be one of the most creative ways to live. It’s another way of being an artist. And no two artists are alike.  Your business will become your blank canvas, with a one of a kind painting that you create with your own colors, your passion and your spirit.

Too much doing is limiting your leading

Many creative business owners start their professional careers as freelancers. I was one myself. I opened the doors to my agency at the age of twenty three with not much, if any, management or leadership experience. For the first few years of my business I wore a lot of hats, from supervising every aspect of every project to marketing, pricing, pitching new work and managing clients.

Naturally, the business grew to a point where I wasn’t able to manage all aspects of the day-to-day without giving up hopes of having an actual life. So I did what most freelancers do: I hired people to replicate me. People with similar skills and talents who were to become extensions of myself. Little did I know that I was actually limiting the potential of what my business could become, preventing it from becoming the kind of creative firm that allowed me to personally thrive in the areas that I am best suited for.

Having a staff relieved me from having to do all the work myself but at the same time it brought a whole new set of challenges that I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Now, I was not only a designer and creative director, I was also a people manager and a supervisor. My typical day started early and ended late. I always felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks at hand. My stress level was through the roof and for all the hours I was putting into the business, I never found time to actually enjoy the fruits of my labor.

It took me a few good years of putting out daily fires and just getting by financially to realize that I was  spending less and less time on the things I love most  – the things that inspired me to start my own design firm in the first place. Something had to change. Even though my business felt like it was growing (bigger clients, bigger budgets, bigger staff) I was still wearing too many hats, not sleeping well at night and barely having a life.

As a manager of the business, my main focus was making sure the work got done, and done well. High quality work was the main goal. But that goal became harder and harder to reach as the business grew and my staff expanded. The more I focused on the work, the less I was leading the business.

Creatives tend to shy away from stepping into a leadership position as often times it requires us to step away from the hands-on part of producing the work. And we love the work. It’s our passion. It’s why we started a business to begin with, isn’t it? 

Michael Gerber, author of “The E-Myth Revisited” makes the  observation that most businesses are started by technicians:, people who are skilled at something and enjoy doing that thing. When the technician continues doing the  work they are skilled at and ignores the overarching leadership aspects of their business (like setting long term goals or having a clear vision) they soon find themselves overworked, understaffed and eventually broke. Worst of all, they may come to hate the work they do, and find themselves working for managers who are completely clueless about how to run a business - themselves.

Follow your gut

There are thousands of leadership books out there that will tell you what to do as a leader and teach you the skills you need, but  the most powerful leadership tool you have is your intuition. Leading people is not all about systems or rules (leave those to your manager), it’s about being in tune with what you gut is telling you.

Your intuition is your greatest gift as a leader. You must trust it and lead from it if you want to lead well. Your instincts will never fail you. They never do when it comes to solving design problems for your clients, so trust them when you need to make leadership decisions. If you don’t trust your gut you’ll keep doubting yourself and as a result, run your business from a place of constant fear – of losing clients and going out of business.

It’s hard for most creatives to trust their intuition when it comes to business and leadership. We are not taught to do this in school,  professional associations we belong. The lack of leadership isn’t going to go away in our industry or in your business unless you stop coming from fear and start being bolder. 

And how do you become bolder? It starts with learning to say “no” more often: NO to clients who aren’t the right fit; NO to employees who are not in harmony with your vision; and NO to daily distractions that suck up time and energy.  The more you say “no” to what doesn’t align with your vision, the more you’ll say a big “YES” to the things that help your business grow in a healthy way.

Fear gets in the way of saying no.  Fear of rejection, fear of not being liked and fear of money. This fear stops will stop you truly leading yourself and leading others. Don’t forget that the most powerful asset you have is your creativity – and leadership is where your creativity is most likely not being fully accessed. To lead IS to be creative. To take risks, to invent, to fail, to trust in yourself.

Design your day to support your role

We all get the same twenty four hours in a day. Time is our most valuable resource. Once it’s gone, it cannot be replaced. How you choose to spend your time will determine whether you are managing or leading your business. So  be more mindful of the choices you make.

If you are a manager, your time will be spent on responding to clients, dealing with subordinates, putting out unexpected fires and overall quality control. Your typical day will include a lot of phone calls, emails and meetings. A lot of face time with your team and your clients.

As a leader, your time will be spent very differently. Your focus will be being the public face of the business, establishing yourself as the thought  leader, who creates followers who support his mission. You will spend time in conversation with potential clients and investors, and receiving reports from the people who are managing your business. Your physical time in  your business will be to inspire your team , to present at high level meetings and to create value . As a leader, your days will be more about influencing others and advising.

There comes a point in your life where you need to choose who you want to be in your business. If you choose to remain a manager, you are setting yourself up for a life of micro-managing, fire-fighting and stress; but choose to be a leader and you set yourself - and your business - free to fly.