Leaders vs managers are they really different?

The debate between leadership and management has been raging for decades! The distinction between management a leadership is useful one. It gives us way to understand the role of a leader. It provides a framework to reflect on our behaviour and to answer the question “are we leading?” 

In this post we’ll explore the differences between managers and leaders.

”There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial” – Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis in his famous book “On Becoming a Leader” describes the difference between managers and leaders as follows:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager accepts reality; the leader investigates it.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his or her eye on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This is a great list. Its job is to cause us to pause a reflect on our behaviour and ask ourselves “Where am I spending the majority of my time? Am I more focused on the items on the left or the ones on the right?

Another influential management thinker who has explored the distinction between management and leadership is John Kotter, author of “John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do”, In this book John Kotter makes the following observations:

  • “Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action… Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”
  • “Most U.S. corporations today are overmanaged and underled.”
  • “Strong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse.”
  • “Management is about coping with complexity…. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic… Good management brings a degree of order and consistency….”
  • “Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change… More change always demands more leadership.”
  • “Companies manage complexity by planning and budgeting, by organizing and staffing, and by controlling and problem solving. By contrast, leading an organization to constructive change involves setting a direction (developing a vision of the future and strategies to achieve the vision), aligning people, and motivating and inspiring them to keep moving in the right direction.”

One important point that John Kotter makes is that:

“Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action… Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”

The fact is that leadership and management are both important, they are two distinctive systems of action, both are necessary as each seeks to do different things.

On this topic, Jim Estill posted this great quote on his blog, “ CEO Blog — Time Leadership ” citing a classic article from Harvard Business Review by Abraham Zaleznik in 1977 that discusses Leaders vs. Managers:

“The difference between managers and leaders, he wrote, lies in the conceptions they hold, deep in the psyches, of chaos and order. Managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly — sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully in this way, Zalenznik argued, business leaders have much more in common with artists, scientists and other creative thinkers than they do with managers. Organizations need both managers and leaders to succeed, but developing both requires a reduced focus on logic and strategic exercises in favour of an environment where creativity and imagination are permitted to flourish.”

In the end, we need to be good at leading first and managing second, the why and the what, then only, the how and the when!

Reflect on your behaviour over the past month and ask yourself:

  • Where do you find yourself spending the majority of your time? Managing or leading?
  • Given that most organisations are “over managed and under led“, What two management tasks can delegate this week?
  • What two leadership behaviours do you need to focus on and improve this week?