The history, context and utility of the distinction between leadership and management
The ideas of leadership and management were developed independently and under vastly different circumstances. The concept of the “great man” was the birth of the idea of leadership, celebrating the qualities and accomplishments of men who changed the world. The idea of “management,” which included the study of employee tasks to determine which methods of performance were most productive and profitable, came from a very different, more pedestrian place. Management was a means to an end. Leadership was almost godlike.
Today, there’s less of a divide between “leader” and “manager.” So much so, that we contemplate and argue the differences between the two functions.
- Analyze the difference between leaders and managers
- Discuss the hybrid role of leader-managers in contemporary organizations
Leader or Manager?
Abraham Zaleznik, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, was the first to write about the differences between leaders and managers. His article, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” challenged the traditional view of management, which centered on organizational structure and processes. 1 Organizations, at the time, developed managers with a focus on process and control. Zaleznik argued that these same organizations were missing the opportunity to develop leaders by concentrating on this, because they were really two different types of people.
Zaleznik charged that the approach of the typical organization was omitting essential leadership elements of inspiration, vision and human passion from their concept and development of people. He went on to define a manager as someone who seeks order, control and rapid resolution of problems. A leader, he went on to say, is more like an artist, and “tolerates chaos and lack of structure.” Organizations were too often not creating an environment where leaders could flourish.
In Zaleznik’s view, leaders and managers contribute to the organization. Leaders contribute by advocating change and new approaches, and do so by gaining the commitment of employees. Managers contribute by advocating stability and the status quo, exercising authority, carrying out responsibility and determining how work will get accomplished.
John Kotter, current Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, had some additional opinions on the differences between leadership and management. In 1990, Kotter proposed that leadership and management were two distinct, yet complementary systems of action in organizations. Specifically, leadership is about coping with change, and management is about coping with complexity.
Kotter’s view of the leadership process involves:
- Developing a vision for the organization
- Aligning people with that vision through communication
- Motivating people to action through empowerment and basic needs fulfillment
Conversely, Kotter’s view of the management process involves:
- Planning and budgeting
- Organizing and staffing
- Controlling and problem solving
Why is it important for us to understand the difference between leaders and managers? As John Kotter indicated, it comes down to business needs. The video above, which was made in 2013, talked about the importance of leaders in a time when organizations were selecting and rewarding based on management skills. There are not, Kotter said, enough leaders to take us through these swiftly changing times, and in a time when change is the norm, it’s the leader you need.
Time has gone by, and perhaps we’re now putting too much emphasis on the talents of the leader and not the manager. Organizations need managers to lead and leaders to manage—certainly in hiring a manager they are given the authority to lead. Managers today need to ask themselves what kind of guidance their teams need to turn vision into reality, and that’s needed at every level in the organization.
- Zaleznik proposed that managers were results driven and leaders were creative artists.
- Kotter proposed that leaders navigated change and managers navigated complexity.
- Researcher Warren Bennis said, “Managers are people who do things right, and leaders are people who do right things.”
Organizations need both.
To read articles that highlight the differences between leadership and management is to think that leadership is great and management is evil. After all, leaders inspire, and managers control. Leaders evoke passion while managers evoke obedience. Who would want to be a manager after reading things like that?
We understand now that there’s a difference between the role of leader and the role of manager in an organization, and that organizations need both to function well. Leaders do provide the vision and get buy-in from employees to believe in it and execute on it. Managers provide instruction and create conformity. Having this understanding allows us to identify organizational needs around both functions, so we can shift gears to provide it.
Furthermore, we understand that people can be leaders and managers all at once. Let’s take a look at this hybrid leader-manager role.
The late business management guru Peter Drucker said, “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” 2 Such is the leader-manager’s charge at every level in the organization.
Let’s assume that you lead the financial operations of a small portion of the company. You have accounts payable and accounts receivable functions reporting to you. You, in turn, report to the company’s comptroller. How do you, from your office without windows on the third floor, put Peter Drucker’s advice into motion?
Have a Vision
Create momentum around your vision and the company’s vision—and encourage your departments’ leaders to do the same
Perhaps your vision for the department is to be the best finance department in the company, outperforming the financial departments that support the company’s other areas. Your job as leader is to tie that vision to the goals and beliefs of your employees. And, because leaders create other leaders, you encourage your accounts payable and accounts receivable managers to do the same with their smaller teams.
Explain Your Reasoning
Set examples and explain your reasoning to earn employee respect
Employees often follow the examples of leaders who display integrity and strength in their interactions. The leader-manager often has to make unpopular decisions, and when he or she does, an explanation of the reasoning behind that decision can help the leader earn the respect of employees.
Business people who have subordinates at almost every level will agree that inspiring others is their most important function, but most understand that accomplishing goals is the central concern of the work they’re doing. Without accomplish tasks, there is no productivity, no profit. If employees are motivated and excited about the work they’re doing, the leader-manager should be well on his or her way to guiding the team’s accomplishments. This is where a hybrid of managerial skill and leadership traits really moves into action.
Innovate New Solutions
Obstacles and roadblocks are commonplace in the business world. Leaders embrace risk and understand that they must be taken to grow. Leaders embrace change. Managers, on the other hand, like routine and status quo, if we are to understand the assessments of researchers correctly. As a leader-manager, you will need to assess the roadblocks you see and innovate new solutions to overcome them. Some may work and some may not.
Good Boss, Bad Boss
Robert Sutton, author of the book Good Boss, Bad Boss and Stanford University professor, noted that Warren Bennis’ statement, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing” had some unintended negative effects on how leaders approached their work today.
In his article “True Leaders are Also Managers” for the Harvard Business Review, Sutton stated, “Some leaders now see their job as just coming up wiith big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere ‘management’ work.”3
Sutton cited some of the leaders he respected most, like Steve Jobs, Francis Ford Coppola, Anne Mulcahy because they have a remarkable ability to bounce between big picture ideas and the minuscule details that eventually contribute to the fruition of their work. On this, Sutton comments.4
I am not rejecting the distinction between leadership and management, but I am saying that the best leaders do something that might properly be called a mix of leadership and management. At a minimum, they lead in a way that constantly takes into account the importance of management. Meanwhile, the worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies.
He concluded by modifying Bennis’ statement, “To do the right thing, a leader must understand what it takes to do things right.” Organizations need leader-managers, people who can empower teams and guide them to their goals.
1. Zaleznik, Abraham. “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” 1977. Accessed May 08, 2019 from Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2004/01/managers-and-leaders-are-they-different.
2. “What Is the Difference Between Management and Leadership?” The Wall Street Journal. Accessed April 29, 2019. http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/what-is-the-difference-between-management-and-leadership/.
4. Sutton, Robert I. “True Leaders Are Also Managers.” Harvard Business Review. August 11, 2010. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://hbr.org/2010/08/true-leaders-are-also-managers. ↵
- Leadership vs Management. Authored by: Freedom Learning Group. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Untitled. Authored by: O12. Provided by: Pixabay. Located at: https://pixabay.com/photos/chess-king-chess-pieces-chess-board-2727443/. License: CC0: No Rights Reserved. License Terms: Pixabay License
- The Key Differences Between Leading and Managing. Authored by: Dr. John Kotter. Located at: https://youtu.be/SEfgCqnMl5E. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
- Ibid. ↵