Managing vs. leading: Why that distinction matters in the modern workplace

Hosted by Neil Amato

Hamza Khan had just spoken at a TEDx event in 2016 when he got a message from his boss: See me in my office, first thing in the morning.

Khan, an author and speaker who will deliver the May 10 keynote address at the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference in Salt Lake City, recounts the initial reaction to his talk about management of people — it was not all positive. But the content was prescient, a pre-pandemic look at flexible work.

In this podcast episode, Khan explains more about how his message has resonated, the difference between managing and leading, and why the theme "put people first" should be paramount in organizations.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An overview of Douglas McGregor's theory X and theory Y.
  • Khan's explanation for why some of the initial comments about his 2016 TEDx talk were "demoralizing" to him.
  • Why Khan said there is a "misconception that people step up during a crisis."
  • The old habits that managers have a hard time discarding.
  • A simple way that Khan defines culture.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato. On today's episode, our guest is Hamza Khan, a successful marketer, bestselling author, and a speaker with transformative ideas about what makes a good leader in the modern workplace. In May, he'll be a keynote speaker at the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference. Hamza, it's a pleasure to have you on the Journal of Accountancy podcast, so welcome.

Hamza Khan: Wow, Neil, the pleasure is all mine. Thank you, sir.

Amato: The title of your keynote session at the CFO Conference, May 10, features the phrase "stop managing, start leading." To you, what is the difference, to start this off, between managing and leading?

Khan: Excellent question. That title was inspired by my lived experiences being managed and also being a manager. I was realizing very quickly, I had to guess it happened gradually then suddenly that the old playbook, the remnant of the first and second Industrial Revolution, the 20th century management playbook was increasingly inconsistent with the behaviors and expectations of my generation. So I identify as Gen Y, a Millennial, and I'm seeing this also now true for Gen Z. All trends indicate that future generations will be fundamentally unmanageable because you manage things, you manage budgets, events, and processes, but people, people are meant to be led. These ideas are encapsulated in the theory X and theory Y proposed by the researcher Douglas McGregor. Theory X essentially assumes that people are lazy, unmotivated, they need to be micromanaged, they lack intrinsic motivation.

Theory Y assumes the opposite. It assumes that people are well intentioned, that they do wish to do meaningful work, that they will go above and beyond the call of duty if given the right conditions, and that's the key over there. What are the right conditions at the level of culture and leadership that can remove obstacles for people's path for them to do their best work? When you think about management, it was very much inspired by an industrial context. But the work that we're doing now, mostly and thinking about this community that I'll be speaking to in the spring, we're knowledge workers. Our workplace resembles less and less the factories that inspired management as a practice.

Amato: Now you have a TEDx talk from 2016. I think it's been viewed millions of times. It's basically the same name. What I'd like for you to reflect on is, do you ever look back on that and marvel about how it was ahead of its time, as it was strongly advocating in 2016 for remote work?

Khan: Neil, this is so interesting you say that. It was somehow so ahead of its time back then as it is even now. When I delivered it, it was received very well by my peers, by fellow Millennials, by younger generations, by even leaders in other generations, Boomers, Gen X, who were open to these ideas about hybrid work, flexible work, laissez-faire attitudes to leadership, transformational leadership, so on and so forth. But it was swiftly struck down by my more traditional peers. In fact, my boss at the time actually summoned me to his office that night and he said "Tomorrow morning, I need you in the office first thing in the morning." He dressed me down that next morning for delivering this TedTalk, which he described as being seditious to the existing order within the institution I was working at.

That was very demoralizing for me on the one hand to receive all of this validation from my peers, but to also be struck down by the gatekeepers, if you will. I actually lost confidence in the message for a number of years, Neil. Then just at the beginning of the pandemic, I received invitations from different organizations around the world and one in particular, James Hunt out of the University of New Castle in Australia of all places said, this TedTalk that you've delivered is very prescient and it's one of the best messages about leadership that I've heard in the last 20 years. I thought, wow, I mean, this is remarkable that you are resonating with this idea on the other side of the world. So we set up an event. I went, I spoke over there and to see the reception to this message several years later was extremely validating for me. It made me think that there is something in this talk that is clearly striking a chord with people.

Then, Neil, as we know, the pandemic happened. This talk had already done well in terms of views and engagement online. But during the pandemic, it was like a light switch was hit, and this talk took on a life of its own, man. I think now it's nearly 3 million views on YouTube. Last time I checked it's approaching that, which is surreal to me because it was such a personal talk for me at the time. Again, recounting that I lost confidence and faith in my own message, rediscovered it at the beginning of the pandemic, and now it is out there, it's in the zeitgeist. People have taken that message, they've repurposed it. And somehow this message is still relevant, given that many leaders and organizations in the world right now are struggling with the fundamental message at the heart of this talk, which is put people first.

Amato: You mentioned obviously the pandemic and the switch, the light switch. How did leadership change as a result of the pandemic?

Khan: It reverted back to the level of training values and preparation of all leaders. There is this misconception that people step up during a crisis. But the opposite is true when you get down to the level of brain science, psychology, people default back to, again, their level of training, values, and preparation. This is explained by the amygdala hijack. During times of sudden crisis, sudden change, our prefrontal cortex gets overridden by a more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and gives us four survival-based options, fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

What I saw in the early days of the pandemic, March, April, May, the fear months, if you will, of the pandemic, the time of the great toilet paper wars of 2020, or the sourdough baking competition months that some people remember. During that time, I saw many leaders stumble. Government leaders, nonprofit leaders, especially business leaders. I truly believe that how they behaved when faced with the prospect of their organizations' shutting down is a reflection of who they are as leaders.

So, what happened in the pandemic, to sum up my answer here, is people just reverted back to who they truly were and they got to discover that they were either ready for this new era of work or they weren't. The people that insisted on managing during this time were clearly not ready for the future of work. I think that the sediment of organizations left, now three years later, indicates to me that within these organizations are people who believe, even at a small level, that people need to come before profits and any other priority. But the ones who believed the opposite, who put profits before people and planet, I don't think they're around, or if they are, their organizations are failing by all measures.

Amato: Now that's not the first time we've had the mention of the amygdala in the brain on the JofA podcast. About a year ago, we had an organizational expert who's trained as a Ph.D. talk about those things, and the fear was definitely there. She says right now, or she said a year ago, I'd say it's still probably true related to employees and burnout. She used the term or the phrase, "employees are crispy right now."

Khan: I love that such a vivid image. And I'm speaking as somebody who has burned out multiple times in my career, most vividly in 2014, I would describe myself certainly as crispy, burnt to a crisp — great imagery there.

Amato: Getting back to the topic of management versus leadership, what are the old habits that are hardest to unlearn for those managers who are trying to become leaders?

Khan: I want to give a high-level answer and then go into some specifics over here. This was inspired by an episode that I listened to on this show about fraud very recently. It reminded me and I can't remember and I apologize, I can't remember the name of the guest that you brought on, but a fantastic episode. She produced a documentary and a book as well.

Amato: Kelly Richmond Pope.

Khan: Shoutout to Kelly Richmond Pope, great episode. Inspired some thoughts, and I was especially surprised to hear about the sort of everyday normalized fraud that happened within industries that you didn't think would engage in fraud. That brought up a memory of a model that I'm exploring right now for my next project. It's called the D-factor of personality traits. You have you heard about this? The D-factor of personality traits.

Amato: I have not.

Khan: OK, sir, well, this is going to be really interesting hopefully for you and the listeners as well. So a lot of my research is focused on destructive leadership, looking at dark triad leadership traits, namely subclinical levels of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Then I'm looking at ways that this plays out in the workplace through destructive traits such as bullying employees, neglecting their needs, putting other priorities before them, lack of fairness in the workplace, lack of values in the workplace, lack of control in the workplace, unsustainable workload, insufficient reward, and poor/toxic community. These are the six upstream factors that make burnout a reality for employees, but they fall within the purview of leadership. I've been obsessed with the question of what is the root cause of why a manager behaves badly in the workplace? There seems to be some consensus amongst the community of psychologists and researchers on leadership that socially aversive traits are governed by what's known as the D-factor of personality.

I hope I get this definition right. The D-factor of personality is this. It's the tendency to maximize utility for oneself while accepting, neglecting, or provoking disutility for others. In other words, it's looking after your needs and maximizing value for yourself at the expense of others. It's putting yourself and your needs before others' needs. I think once you understand that, then all of the counterproductive behaviors of managers become very easy to identify. For example, let's say there's tension happening in the workplace and you see all the managers meet in secret. They are in a room and they're talking amongst themselves. Something like that can create a lot of stress for employees who visualize, who can see their managers and leaders go into a room and have discussions that might be about performance, that might be about letting people go, budget cuts, whatever the case may be.

Another thing could be neglecting one-on-ones and just brushing the important one-on-ones that should happen on a weekly or biweekly basis under the rug and in the name of being busy, we can't meet right now, let's meet next week. Next week becomes next month, and next month becomes a quarter later. Other things could be very stern ways of writing emails or having any communication on Slack or Discord or any other internet channels.

My favorite is just when you start an email with instead of "Hey, Neil," it's like, "Neil, comma, as per my last email," something like that. When a manager is not thinking about their employees' well-being, not behaving in a way that's compassionate, that's focused on relieving their suffering and removing obstacles from their path to do their best work. Then, within that bucket of counterproductive workplace behaviors, any number of ways in which an employee feels neglected and is losing their ability to be productive and engaged in the workplace, that is what I would say is something that managers should be aware of.

Amato: In this new environment we're in with a lot of remote and hybrid working, how can those in management and leadership positions promote and build a strong culture when they're not having everyone together all at the same time or in the same place?

Khan: I define culture as that which an organization rewards, tolerates, and punishes. Through that lens, I think one of the things that needs to happen as we transition from the primacy of the office to an online environment in which there might not be as much face-to-face communication, as [many] serendipitous interactions. I think the onus is on leaders to take a step back and relinquish control a little bit and accept that they shouldn't make all these decisions in a vacuum because, for all intents and purposes, the world of work is changing, the paradigm is shifting. We're going into a new environment altogether, it's a new frontier. I would encourage these leaders to actually ask their employees what they want. I see this mistake being made far too often, where leaders will design solutions in a vacuum and then implement a culture that will just fail because they didn't get sufficient buy-in from their employees.

I think one of the questions has to be, well, what should the rhythm of online communication look like? How often should we be touching base in a hybrid environment? How many days should we be in the office if you do feel like we should be in the office, if indeed creativity is suffering as a result, what would be a good use of the space in our office? What kind of social activities should we implement that would help everybody in the organization feel engaged versus just having an online equivalent of an afternoon drinks session, where what usually happens in these sessions is 20% of the people do 80% of the talking and people feel neglected and don't sign up or exit prematurely.

In sum, I would say, leaders, if you're listening to this, you don't have to do this by yourself. Doing this by yourself can actually prove counterproductive. Involve your employees in the decision-making process. I think a way to assess for if your employees are represented in the decision-making process is to actually look around the decision-making table and ask, "who's not here? Who's missing from the decision-making table?" Because if you're making decisions about people and they're not represented at the decision-making table, then it'll likely misfire whatever the change process you're undertaking here.

Amato: Those who have heard Hamza speak today, you can hear him more, see him more at the CFO Conference in May. But for right now, anything as a closing thought you'd like to offer?

Khan: I want to congratulate every leader who's listening to this podcast right now. You have survived a three-year ordeal, truly something that has raised the world of work and has left a lot of managers and people who've engaged in counterproductive workplace behaviors in the dust. They're not here. So if you are listening to this, in a sense, you are a survivor. You have the composition necessary to lead an organization for the next 50 to 100 years if you choose to put people first.

Amato: Hamza Khan, thank you very much.

Khan: Thank you, Neil.