For ten years, my father and I bickered back and forth about why I wasn’t going into management. The arguments seemed rational—better pay, better benefits, more chance for advancement—but they didn’t move me. Maybe it’s an introvert thing, maybe it’s just that I prefer being responsible only for my own actions. Whatever it is about being “in charge,” it’s not a passion for me.
My interest is in writing, preferably for someone else, with minimal supervision. I prefer to be a teammate or an “independent contributor,” responsible only for bossing around myself. I have any number of reasons, but the bottom line was that I don’t enjoy being in charge of other people.
However, our economic system most often pays those who supervise (or lead, which is not always the same skill) more than those who are supervised.
Leaders, Managers, & Supervisors
Regardless of what you call the role, a person in a leadership position is charged with directing the performance of others. This requires the ability to make requests and ensure that they get done. Leadership requires organization abilities, including the ability to make and follow a schedule, assign tasks, and ensure that resources are on hand to perform the work. People in leadership positions need to be willing and able to provide feedback on performance and discipline subordinates and to answer to higher levels of management or to customers in the event of non-performance. Leaders also have to be creative enough to develop and articulate new goals to improve the capabilities, outputs, and income of an organization. Senior leaders are concerned with the performance of the overall organization.
If you’re in “middle management,” you can be both a leader and a follower, which again is another set of skills. It requires the ability to interpret directions from “on high” and convert them into action plans for others in the organization. It also requires the ability to communicate feedback “up the ladder” if directions are creating performance, resource, or morale problems. The middle manager’s primary concern is with the collective performance of the individuals under his/her area of responsibility.
Followers, Employees, & Subordinates
Again, call a “follower” what you will, but individuals in this role are working as an employee and are reporting to someone else, usually with no one reporting to you. Often you are on the “front line” of an organization, creating the product or service outputs that make a company profitable. You could be high- or low-skilled, but are primarily taking direction from others. Your level of input, autonomy, or creativity in the role would vary by industry or role, but the primary social skills expected are the ability to take directions and accurately execute them. The subordinate’s primary concern is with his or individual performance of a task.
This is a specialized—and increasingly common—role in American industry. Individual contributors can be classified as subject matter experts, consultants, contractors, or “talent.” They are brought into an organization to contribute to specific projects or outcomes. They might work as a peer with any or all levels of a hierarchy, acting in both leadership and subordinate roles, both listening to inputs and offering advice. Technical skills could range from engineering and medicine to teaching and the performing arts, while social skills include independence, diplomacy, a “service-minded” orientation, and positive attitude. The primary concerns of an independent contributor are the performance of his/her individual tasks as well as the contributions or value-added they can provide to the customer, which is the organization.
So where do you see yourself?