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Leadership vs Management

Leadership’s hostile takeover of management’s role in the 1980’s has been a disaster. Efforts to separate them so romanticize leadership and demonize management that few can be leaders and no one wants to be a manager.

It’s time to ditch the stale clichés that make leadership people-oriented, liberating and inspiring, while portraying management as task-focused, controlling and transactional. Leadership is too bloated in a complex world that demands greater specialization. It needs to share the load of driving business success with management.

How We Created this Mess

Prior to the Japanese commercial invasion of the 1970s, executives were happy to be called managers. But, overreacting to the Japanese success, we cried out for leaders to replace managers. Management, a convenient scapegoat, was charged with being too bureaucratic, controlling and mechanistic. Instead of upgrading management, we killed it off.

The language of management style was deployed to glorify leaders and condemn managers. Previously, managers could be theory X or Y, task-focused or people-oriented. Now, leadership got the good guy styles (theory Y and people-oriented), leaving management stuck with the bad guy role (theory X and task-oriented).

Rather than adopting this irrational good-bad mindset, we could have used neutral terms to differentiate leaders from managers just as we do with sales and marketing, equally vital functions; neither is good or bad.

Problems With the Status Quo View of Leadership

  • Differentiating leadership from management in terms of style doesn’t work – it is possible to lead quietly, without being inspiring, especially in technical contexts.
  • People throughout history have followed leaders who aren’t very good with people.
  • While leadership is supposed to be an influence process, we admire leaders who make sound decisions, but deciding for people is not a form of influence so how can this be leadership?
  • If you can lead by example without being in charge of people, then leadership can’t be limited to those in positions of authority, even informally.
  • By narrowly focusing on persons in charge of groups, we exclude leadership between competing companies and shown by outsiders or bottom-up.

The Purpose of Leadership and Management

Separating leadership from management is hampered by the fact that, unlike sales and marketing, we view them as competing for the same territory. Both entail positions of authority over people to get work done through them. This leaves only one way to differentiate them: style.

John Kotter tried to avoid this problem. He retained the style differentiation, making leaders inspiring and managers transactional, but he gave them different territories like sales and marketing. Kotter’s leaders championed change while his managers focused on efficient execution. The latter didn’t need to be inspiring to keep things ticking over in the engine room.

Unfortunately, Kotter still left managers and leaders jockeying to get work done through people. Thus it is hard to escape the conclusion that leaders simply do it better than managers. Although Kotter’s leaders deal with change and managers with complexity, they are both in charge of people with the purpose of getting the best out of them.

Another perspective is that leadership and management have fundamentally different purposes: leaders to promote a better way and management to make the best use of people in relation to a given goal. Leadership so reframed is an influence process, not a role in charge of people. Its focus is narrowed to promoting a better way, thus having nothing to do with getting work done through people.

Consider how Martin Luther King, Jr. showed leadership. He didn’t achieve results through a team of people reporting to him. Rather, he challenged the status quo treatment of African Americans and thereby had a leadership impact on the general public. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi also showed leadership by challenging the status quo, not by helping a team achieve a goal.

When CEOs promote a new vision, they seek to influence people to move in a new direction. They are promoting a better way, just as did King, Mandela and Gandhi. What’s confusing is that CEOs also manage implementation of their new vision. But King, Mandela and Gandhi were outsiders in relation to their respective governments, so they had no power to implement anything.

Thus, if we are to classify these 3 heroic individuals as leaders, we must say that the purpose of leadership is to promote a new direction, not to get work done through a team of people. This is the key to finally and clearly separating leadership from management.

Reinstating Management and Reinventing Leadership

Management reinstated takes care of EVERYTHING to do with getting work done through people. Managers can use whatever style works to motivate employees, including being inspiring, empowering and nurturing. Because leadership is an influence process, managers make ALL decisions, even strategic ones.

Management can be defined as a process for achieving a goal that makes the best use of all available resources. This includes deciding what to do as well as how to do it. All employees manage themselves when they prioritize and manage their time. Managers apply the same principles of management; the only difference is that they have more resources to manage, including people. Management is simply a way of getting things done that is not chaotic, random or wasteful; effective management creates value.

Leadership, by contrast, is content focused. It can be about values, technology, products, politics or processes. Its essence is a better idea on some specific subject; it works by influencing others to accept that idea. Changing minds is the minimally sufficient way to show leadership, which means that it doesn’t necessarily get anything done. For instance, leadership can STOP people from taking certain actions or to discontinue an unproductive policy. There is nothing to implement in either case, no journey to take or vision to realize.

Those who sell the tickets for a journey can delegate execution or manage it themselves. The latter entails switching hats from leadership to management. Implementing change can require 80% management and 20% leadership, but these proportions will vary with the strength of the resistance. But as resistance approaches zero, implementation of change approaches 100% management.

Management is an ongoing process that only ends when the goal is achieved. By contrast, leadership is a discrete, brief injection of influence that may be needed only at the beginning of the journey or periodically throughout. But leadership is an event, a kind of impact, like all forms of influence, not an ongoing process.

The following table spells out the differences between leadership and management. The terms “leader” and “manager” are avoided in order to de-emphasize roles. All employees can both lead and manage.





Influence change

High return goal achievement


Direct appeal, example

Decide or facilitate



Decide or facilitate



Decide or facilitate


No involvement



Influence to change direction

Develop, engage, empower, motivate


Totally situational

Totally situational

Now let’s consider each of these differentiating factors in more detail.

1.    Purpose

The purpose of leadership is to promote a new direction, a better way. Management is not just about execution, although that is a big part of what it does. But it can also decide new directions. Thus it does the right things, not just things right. Its aim is to achieve the best return on the investment of all resources at its disposal, even if it is only individual employees making best use of their personal talent and time.

2.    How

Leadership is an influence process, one that can be shown bottom-up as well as top-down. It can even come from outside the organization. Thus it is only associated with the executive role situationally. By looking at leadership in broader terms we can see that it has no authority to decide anything, so it can only influence change.

To see why leadership can only influence, notice that businesses show leadership to their competitors as Apple does in the music, cellphone and computer markets. Leadership is shown by outsiders when, for example, Jack Welch’s initiatives at GE, such as workout, had a leadership impact on other companies. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court and the general public as an outsider when he protested against segregation on buses.

We admire King, not because of what he achieved through his followers on the street but rather for the impact he had on the general public. Hence his leadership had nothing to do with achieving a goal through people reporting to him.

Individual employees can also lead by example, simply by doing a task better than others. If team members follow suit, leadership is shown, even if it is unintended.

Management works by deciding what to do or by facilitating decisions using a participative approach where the manager asks engaging questions such as “What do you think?” It gets work done through people by motivating, encouraging and developing them and by coordinating their efforts as a catalyst. It can take an active role in getting work done or it can simply engineer the conditions that enable others to achieve results.

3.    Change

Leadership is change-oriented by definition but it can only influence others to change. Whenever executives decide to make a change, they are wearing a management hat. Managers, contrary to the standard clichés, are not wedded to the status quo. They can be just as change-oriented as leaders. The difference is that they decide or facilitate change rather than influence a new direction.

4.    Strategy

As with change, leaders can only influence new strategies. Managers decide new strategies or draw ideas for new strategies out of their teams.

The same is true of innovation. Leaders promote new ideas but managers design a culture that fosters creative thinking in all employees. Managers also directly facilitate innovation by asking questions to stimulate employees to think differently.

5.    Execution

Execution is not the domain of leadership. It can’t be if leadership can be shown bottom-up or by outsiders. Only those in charge of others can execute and it is only managers who occupy roles. Leadership is never a role, only an influence process. Managers can, of course, show leadership, but it is an act or impact, not a role.

6.    People

To influence change, leaders can be inspiring but they don’t develop people, nurture them or get work done through them. This is because leadership can be shown at a distance without managing those who do the work. Managers don’t simply control people. Of course management controls are necessary but all employees can be self-managing to a large extent in this sense.

The primary function of managers, with respect to people, is to make the best use of this resource. This means being good at empowering, developing, coaching and engaging them. Management is not, absurdly, restricted to transactional ways of working with employees.

The old cliché that people must be led while only things can be managed is just not true. People manage their own careers, finances, time and talent but they are not things. Good management simply helps people get the best return on all their efforts. It can thus be encouraging and engaging, not merely controlling.

It is certainly true that only people can be led but this is true of all forms of influence, including selling and coercion. All forms of influence are impacts on people. But it doesn’t follow that people can’t be managed. It depends on how we define management. As a supportive function, management can be encouraging, developmental, motivating and enabling, not merely controlling.

7.    Style

Both leaders and managers can use whatever style works. To influence change, leaders might offer a compelling vision or make an emotional appeal. But they can just as readily cite hard facts in a quiet, logical manner. There is no universal formula. In politics where people hold entrenched positions, a vision might be necessary. When leading technical employees on a new product design, hard facts might work best.

Managers can be just as inspiring as leaders. They inspire employees to work harder while an inspiring leader influences a change in direction. Emotional intelligence is more essential for managers than for leaders. Getting the best out of people requires insight into how to engage them and meet their needs.

By contrast, emotional intelligence is only a situational influencing style for leaders. They need it to influence people on delicate, value-laden matters but not on technical issues. Indeed, leaders who promote technical change could use an abrasive style if they can make a strong case for change with hard evidence and logic, bearing in mind that leadership is here reconceived as a type of influence, a type of impact. It does not refer to a person in charge of people. Only managers are in charge of people.

Implications and Benefits

Management and leadership do not compete for the same territory. It is not true that both functions are ways of getting work done through people with leadership doing it better, as super managers. They have different purposes and different ways of working.

All employees can show leadership, not just to their colleagues, but to their bosses as well. With a better idea, they can, in principle, show leadership upward without having either the talent or the motivation to take charge of anyone.

Currently, leadership is too top-down. Even so-called dispersed leadership is about taking charge of others informally, not simply influencing them to think or act differently. Making leadership top-down creates dependency, which is why large organizations are so poor at innovation and employee engagement.

It is much more engaging to call employees leaders when they promote new products than framing such initiatives as suggestion box material for the “real leaders” to decide upon.

To show leadership, executives must persuade others to change direction. Regardless of the soundness of their strategic decisions, all decisions are managerial, never leadership. Executives who want to see themselves as leaders, therefore, need to do more influencing and less deciding.

It might be objected that you can’t manage people to a destination; you can only lead them there. But CEOs are like ship’s captains; they don’t lead their crews to a destination. The crew helps them get there. CEOs could only lead others to a destination, strictly speaking, if they could go there first, on their own, like a tour guide. To be precise, the CEO decides on a direction, as a manager, and then motivates others to work toward it.

Alternatively, the CEO might show leadership by selling the journey but that doesn’t get them anywhere either. The CEO still needs to motivate, engage, develop, coach and coordinate the efforts of everyone working toward the destination. These activities can be classified as management, suitably upgraded.

With management reinstated, how much is left leadership to do? The first thing to note is that leadership is no longer a role or a person in charge of others. Such leadership is fully dispersed, not so much to different people, but as actions that anyone can take. Of course, leadership only occurs when people follow, as with all forms of influence.

Just as everyone can be creative, even if only in a small way, everyone can show occasional leadership. In a meeting, everyone whose contributions move the group in a new direction, even slightly, has shown some leadership.

This is the way it should be in a complex, fast-changing, knowledge-driven world where leadership no longer dominates others but simply promotes a better idea. Business, being a war of ideas, needs this kind of leadership to prosper, not the old-fashioned role-based kind.

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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