Leadership vs Management: What is the difference?

leadership management Nov 28, 2019

Ok, so I admit comparing leadership and management is often loaded with emotion. It is a comparison that is a source of debate across many organisations and industries. The differences are not to suggest one is better than the other – as tempting as this can sound. You may have a ‘romantic’ view of leadership that strongly suggests that there is a difference... or is there?


Can we state with certainty that leadership is better than management? While this can spark some lively debate the heart of this question relates to our understanding of roles. The role of a manager caries certain assumptions and expectations that result in defined actions. For example, as a manager, you control resources and ensure an effective and efficient outcome. Essentially driving the strategic goals of the team or organisation.


In a very similar fashion, leadership embodies various assumptions and expectations that followers often use to evaluate performance. Leaders also drive a vision and strategic direction. It would seem reasonable to assume that leadership is about achieving certain shared goals.


Is leadership better than management? If the answer to this was yes, we might potentially undervalue good management. This line of reasoning is often the place debate begins; these two skills as not mutually exclusive. You can certainly be a good manager without having any desire for leadership. Yet in that decision alone you are demonstrating your leadership. Great leaders, however, may not necessarily come from a path of good management. Just consider some great leaders of our time. Gandhi was seen as a great leader, yet he depended on a support team that 'managed' his activities.


Through the early stages of my career, I aspired to be a manager. Being a good manager was a mark of having arrived at that next critical stage. There are many things you might reasonably conclude about my aspiration. Firstly, it reflects my age and perhaps says more about the maturity of thinking at the time. The second reasonable conclusion is that leadership was not as prominent at the start of my career.


Well, today is quite different, leadership has taken the limelight! It may be a little confronting to suggest that leadership is the romantic cousin of management. Leadership is pervasive and confronts us at every stage of our careers. Has management lost its currency? No! Achieving organisational goals with limited resources has become increasingly critical for success. Success requires we apply tools to achieve and measure efficiency and effectiveness.


Leadership might escape this level of scrutiny; it appears far more subjective. Leadership styles tend to change based on context. No longer do we just apply a formula of traits or behaviours to produce the desired result, it has become a complex system of interconnected parts. This is where we notice the difference. The language of leadership is diverse. The common language of management has roots in Westernised ideas. For example, managing a project is about process, policies, work-breakdown structures, stakeholders, and the triple bottom line. This language is not necessarily about to change.


The language of leadership is more transformative; focused on culture, values and beliefs. Our language for leadership tends to be subjective terms that are highly relational. Defining culture is a complex process. Trying to change it requires management and leadership skill.


It feels like a cliché to suggest that leadership is forward-looking – visionary! Carving out a new direction, or more commonly termed ‘driving a new vision’. The concept of driving is more about goal attainment and efficiency outcomes. Goals are aspirational and take us into a new day.


Have you ever been up early enough to see the sunrise? As the light starts to fill the sky there is a brief moment that both the dark of night and the light of day appear to co-exist. This is particularly enjoyable to watch when you find yourself camping under the stars. Being away from city lights allows us to observe this transition. When we think about management and leadership it can often seem we are drawing a contrast of one context over another.


An activity I use in the training room is to ask participants to identify five things that describe management and five that describe leadership. What I have found fascinating is that meanings become blurred – much like the early dawn – with each co-existing to form a fascinating blend of skills.


A quick trip into history. Mintzberg’s 10 managerial roles can often appear to relate to leadership. Broadly they are focused on interpersonal, informational and decisional activities. This certainly comes out from the classroom setting with words such as communication, problem-solving, roles, responsibilities and having an operational focus all featuring in management descriptors. Yet at the same time, communication and problem-solving skills appear to feature as key leadership skills.

I am not advocating a singular ideal. Leadership is certainly something I have a passion to understand. We cannot... no, we must not experience one without the other.


Firstly, can you simultaneously experience good management and poor leadership? Perhaps you can have good leadership while experiencing poor management. Do we find ourselves leaning toward one based on experience? A leader is not always a manager. I like the notion that a manager’s role is to turn leadership ideas into action.


If I state that management was better than leadership and you find yourself agreeing, then one might ask is that a result of cognitive bias? This argument could equally work the other way. We all have experienced management and leadership at some point in our life. Our experience, or more accurately our interpretation of that experience informs and conditions our view of others over time. So, if you have experienced a poor manager it may well be that your view of leadership is more positive as a result and vice versa.


Early in my career, I worked for a small insurance agency. My boss was never unkind but often expressed frustration in unhealthy ways. I didn’t regret the experience and it helped me to appreciate the stress that all managers often face. They taught me the importance of being a good communicator. It has taken a long journey as I now find myself delivering courses on professional communication. Their wisdom at the time was not management, it was leadership. Although I did not see it that way at the time. Management would have expected a result and visible change. Leadership plants seeds and ideas into our minds for something better without necessarily expecting something in return.


What stands out about leadership is an ability to think strategically, to cast a vision and see a possible future. Meanwhile, management seems to stand at the shore trying to keep away the tide of change. A true manager that is operationally focused will seek to do this most effectively and efficiently. A leader is willing to throw caution to the wind and take risks.


This is the point that two become one. Leaders need to problem solve as much as managers. The types of problems they solve however can vary to a large degree. Perhaps it is the manger that is solving the here-and-now issues. A leader is looking for the next problem, the one we don’t yet realise we have.


What this would suggest is that leadership and management have a role to play in successful teams and organisations. We might want to ensure management is in order before taking that next step of leadership. I like the notion that management is about clarifying roles and responsibilities. To do this well requires strong leadership.


The ultimate difference is that management tends to lend itself to positions of authority. While leadership can exist at all levels of an organisation. Those leaders that would rise to the top have demonstrated an ability to merge management skill with the art of leading. It is that moment of coming together that signals the start of a new day.


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