How Managers Can Become Leaders

It is easier said than done, but managers can become leaders. First, imagine you are a newly appointed manager who has some decision making power and a few direct reports. Although your role as a manager brings with it formal authority, you don’t really feel like a leader yet. What can you do to be seen as more of a leader? What are the important qualities that transform a manager into a leader? Researchers (Chiu, Balkundi, & Weinberg, 2016) recently discovered the role of social networks in determining whether or not managers were perceived as leaders.


Although everyone has a slightly different idea of what makes a great leader, two fairly consistent qualities emerge. In order to be seen as a leader, employees need opportunities to see their manager as both competent and supportive. According to the research, having a large positive social network (i.e., friendship or advice ties) creates more opportunities for employees to approach their manager for task-related support. This provides managers the opportunity to demonstrate competence. A larger social network also allows for more frequent employee-manager interactions and displays of supportiveness.

Building a positive social network alone is not enough. Managers must also be aware of reducing their negative social network (i.e., avoidance or hindrance ties) at the same time. Managers with negative social ties are more excluded, are more socially ostracized by others, and lack opportunities to showcase any positive leadership qualities. As a result, employees may either ignore or misinterpret a manager’s showing of competence or supportiveness.


Social networks are also important because of the potential power they bring. A big difference between a manager and a leader is the type of power they have over others. Managers have formal power given to them by the organization. They have the ability to reward others, command compliance, and penalize noncompliance. In contrast, leaders also have power derived from being seen as competent (called expert power) and likeable (called referent power). These two types of power are more informal and given to leaders by their followers, and not by the organization.

So how is everything connected? The researchers found that managers who have a large positive social network (and a small negative network) end up having more expert and referent power. Managers with both referent and expert power are more likely to be viewed as leaders in the organization.





Reward Power: The ability to reward others


Expert Power: Influence derived from being seen as competent


Legitimate Power: The ability to command compliance


Referent Power: Influence derived from being seen as likeable


Coercive Power: The ability to penalize noncompliance



Leaders derive their influence from both expert and referent power. Both of these are forms of power given to leaders by their followers rather than by the organization itself. In contrast, managers rely more on formal power to reward and punish employees. It is important for managers to understanding the type of power they are relying on when trying to influence others.

Managers who want to become leaders need to foster their social networks and generate positive social ties while reducing negative social ties. Generating opportunities to show followers that they are competent and supportive is the first step to building both expert and referent power. Although managers may know they are competent and supportive, they need their followers to see it too. As the researchers conclude, “Managers are appointed by the organization, but leaders are anointed by their followers.”


Chiu, C-Y., Balkunid, P. & Weinberg, F. (2016). When managers become leaders: The role of manager network centralities, social power, and followers’ perception of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly. Advance online publication.