As an academic I love dichotomies. They stretch the imagination, help us avoid subtlety, and enhance focused debate.

The problem with dichotomies, however fun, is that they are overt and sometimes misleading oversimplifications. But in the real world tidy constructs become messes, and dichotomies become continuums. The real question is: Where are you on the continuum?

And the answer is: It depends on the situation. You may be a transactional leader one day and a transformative leader the next. You may be internally directed one day and externally directed a week from Tuesday.

And then there is what I consider to be the ultimate knee-jerk dichotomy:

Are you a manager or a leader?

I understand how we in academia can afford this little luxury. It’s aesthetically pleasing and makes for a clean little world. What amazes me is that this particular dichotomy is often given quite a bit of credence out in the real world.

In reference to a particular open position, one HR director told me, “We’re looking for a leader.” On the same day, in the same organization, referring to the same position, another HR officer told me, “What we’re looking for is a manager.”

Many times I’ve heard chief learning officers talk about their organization’s training needs and use the distinction of not needing a “leadership training program” but instead needing a “managerial training program”-;or the inverse!

The confusion between “leadership” and “managerial” training programs becomes more apparent when dealing with high potential employees.  High potentials clearly have the necessary technical skills and background in the business, but what do they need once they are given responsibility for others? Leadership skills or managerial skills?

They need both. They need to be leaders who can manage, and managers who can lead. The knee-jerk dichotomy has to end. 

The ideal is for leaders and managers to be able to inspire others and implement ideas; innovate and create; and figure out how to manage the process of maneuvering from ideas to results.

The very notion that this knee-jerk dichotomy continues to have currency in a world that demands agile, flexible, and solution-based companies-;and in a world where these companies want to retain talent and stimulate commitment-;is perplexing.

This dichotomy between leading and managing is an indulgence in simplicity that we can no longer afford, especially when organizations are evaluating what core competencies they need their high potentials to develop as they move ahead.

The lesson is to train your managers to lead and your leaders to manage.