Leadership vs. Management

Do all managers have to be leaders?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a successful manager and a successful leader? Where do you stand on the debate of leadership vs. management?

Recently, I suggested to a colleague that I have probably been a fairly good manager during my career, but not necessarily a great leader.

And, in actual fact, I found myself to be very comfortable with that distinction.

I then started thinking whether I could bring to mind anyone I knew who was both (in my view of the world) and I couldn’t come up with anyone.

The only conclusion I could draw was that really effective leaders appear to know the importance of having really good managers – and they surround themselves with them.

This got us on to discussing what the real difference is – especially as it seems these days that the focus is on Leadership Development rather than Management Training.

In fact, they are two very different functions and require very different skills, competencies and behaviours.

The truth is, a substantial “rebranding” exercise has taken place in the world of people management. Whereas we use to have “Personnel” now we have HR and HRBPs, Talent Managers, L & D Specialists, Resourcing Advisors etc.

And although we used to aspire to become Managers…now that is not enough! Now we are encouraged to become leaders…and to my mind that approach undermines the vital importance of managers in organisations.

And herein lies the real problem with people development.

Ultimately, good managers ought to be helped to become better managers. Good leaders ought to be helped to become better leaders – and perhaps there is some truth in the suggestion that good leaders are born and not made.

The fact is, there is a difference – and both are key components of running a successful organisation. Yet so few organisations are able to articulate what ‘effective management’ or ‘effective leadership’ actually looks like…and make little effort to differentiate.

In reality, we spend so much time trying to re-brand ‘managers’ as ‘leaders’ that we forget that they are two very different roles with completely differing demands.

Ultimately, it’s not about the title or the word that we use to define them, but about understanding exactly what each role demands and then getting the right people into those roles.

In fact, by trying to develop ‘leadership skills’ amongst managers who are not necessarily ‘built’ to become ‘leaders’ (and don’t actually want to be), we may well be doing damage to our management teams, by setting unrealistic expectations and forcing round pegs into square holes.

In this blog post, therefore, I’m going to highlight why I think managers do not have to become leaders, and in fact, ought to simply be helped to become better managers.

Why are management and leadership often confused?

It’s interesting to think that 15 or 20 years ago the title of manager was an important and prestigious title – for much of the 20th century, businesses and organisations were primarily focused on developing effective managers, not leaders.

Right up until the 1970s, managers were seen as stewards of an organisation, whose responsibility it was to motivate and mobilise the workforce in order to achieve the objectives of the organisation.

Developing managers allowed growing corporations to facilitate better teamwork and manage the structures and the processes, along with the people, that would lead to consistent growth.

Yet somewhere along the line, the term of manager began to develop a less than savoury reputation.

Certainly in the UK, the industrial unrest that developed in the 1960’s and 70’s and the consequent rift between employees and “management” did not help the manager’s cause or reputation.

“Management” became a faintly derogatory term for a faceless group of unfeeling bureaucrats who apparently did unfair things to people.

By 1974, management teams within the large British organisations were already being blamed for many of the economic problems and hardships that the country faced at the time… and ‘the manager’ started to be perceived far more negatively than ever before.

It was at that point that the teaching of leadership began to gain traction amongst larger organisations.

Business schools began creating ‘leadership development programmes’ for managers, and organisations began focusing on hiring and developing ‘inspirational leaders’ for management roles, rather than on developing ‘effective managers.’

What we have now in 2015, as a result of this shift in semantics, is a very blurred line between management and leadership…

… Yet there is a huge difference between the two functions, and it’s vital that we recognise that if we want to create outstanding and enduring companies.

Leadership vs management: What’s the difference?

When most people talk about management and leadership, they’re often pitted against one another as either complete opposites, or interchangeable synonyms.

In fact, neither is entirely true.

What is true though (in my experience) is that the kind of person who thrives within a management position, is usually not the kind of person who thrives and succeeds within a leadership position (though a select few are able to grow into that position, no doubt).

Both roles require very different things from the individual.

It’s also useful to remember that leadership and management are actually complementary functions which serve very different needs within an organisation, and it’s very rare that one person can fulfil both roles and functions effectively.

Unfortunately, the blurred lines that exist between the two have resulted in companies promoting operational managers into leadership positions, and hiring natural, inspirational leaders and placing them into management positions.

Of course, we’ve all experienced what happens in those situations, and it seldom ends well.

This is mainly because most organisations are not fully clear as to what is required and demanded of each of these functions and each of these roles, to achieve success.

So let’s try and understand the basic differences between the requirements placed on a manager and on a leader, and how that plays out in the real world.

Leaders:

  • Are driven by a cause or a vision which they relentlessly stand by, despite what others say or think (“My way or the highway”)
  • Have courage and the strength of their convictions –they don’t need to be popular.
  • Have a strong need to translate the vision into action.
  • Create the core strategy and set the direction of the organisation
  • Explore and look for new avenues, new innovations and new opportunities
  • Think into the future and create new pathways
  • Are motivated by their passion, their focus on their unshakeable values
  • Have impact and influence inside and outside the organisation
  • Inspire and engage people to join them on their journey
  • Sell the vision and embody the change that needs to be made
  • Ensure that their strategy is being executed by the people below them

Managers:

  • Execute and implement the “big” strategic vision of the Leadership
  • Manage and maintain processes and systems
  • Make sure that things happen on time, on budget and in compliance
  • Ensure control and structure within the organisation
  • Hire, develop and motivate individual contributors to achieve the goals of the business functions
  • Manage the functional and operational aspects of the organisation in line with the leadership vision
  • Ensure team performance and productivity are maintained

Even though the above descriptions are generalised, the point of the exercise is to highlight the fact that successful leaders do things differently to successful managers.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s far harder to train people to be effective leaders than it is to train them to be good managers.

It might even be argued that leaders are born not “developed.”

You see, when we consider that very few of the great leaders of our time (Churchill, Gandhi, Buffet, Gates, etc) went through ‘specialised leadership development programmes’ to get to the top of their game, we also start to see that great leaders are often born with the qualities that make them successful.

“It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position” – Stanley Huffty

That’s not to say that managers cannot acquire certain skills, competencies, and behaviours that are associated with these successful leaders…they can. Great managers can be trained, for sure.

But to expect someone who excels at their role as a line manager to become a ‘game changing leader’ after a 3 day workshop and a six-month coaching programme, is expecting a heck of a lot from that individual.

A case of linguistic engineering?

As far as the development of leaders and managers goes, I would argue that many ‘leadership skills programs’ are actually ‘strategic management skills programmes’ in disguise.

By ignoring the need for management development, we are in actual fact attempting to create a generation of leaders who simply do not want to (or are not capable of) leading an organisation in the truest sense of the word.

It’s a case of linguistic engineering.

“A widespread misunderstanding is that leading and managing are one and the same. Up until a few years ago, books that claimed to be on leadership were often really about management. The main difference between the two is that leadership is about influencing people to follow, while management focuses on maintaining systems and processes” – John Maxwell, Leadership Expert

The truth is, you can call them whatever you want but one thing is clear: when we start to focus less on terminology and more on making sure we have the right kinds of people, with the right behaviours, drives and competencies driving our organisations, we see far more success all round.

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After all, leadership without management is ineffective and management without leadership suppresses growth, innovation and change…but really it’s the people within those functions that make the difference; how they function as people and how they interact with the world around them.

Don’t get me wrong: great managers are at the heart of any successful business, and great leaders are at the top of any successful business.

Unfortunately, by lacking clarity on the differences and the nuances of the two functions, we’ve ended up with managers in leadership roles, and leaders within management roles…neither of which works!

So, what’s going wrong?

Focus on the demands of the role first

Let’s put the changing semantics of management and leadership aside for a moment, and understand that:

  • The function of a business leader is to set the direction and vision of the organisation and to spot new opportunities and innovations.
  • The function of a manager is to execute the strategy, manage the systems and motivate their teams towards those objectives.

Of course, these are two very different functions are very different roles.

But what’s more powerful than understanding the differences between these two titles, is actually taking time out to understand and pinpoint the unique demands and requirements placed on the individual within that role.

That’s because the role of a manager, or the role of the leader within a company, is never set in stone, and in order to get the right person into that role and develop them accordingly, we have to first create a clear picture of the:

  • Behavioural demands of the role
  • Competencies and skills required for success
  • Personalities of the team that that person is responsible for
  • Culture and values of the organisation
  • Stage of growth that the organisation is in
  • Objectives and directions of the organisation

When it comes to either developing managers, or developing future leaders for a business it’s essential that we understand these elements first.

Only then will be able to understand exactly what we need from our managers, and what we need from our leaders.

Rather than relying on traditional descriptions or titles to hire and develop the people who run our organisations, we ought to be focussing on the success criteria for the specific role in question…whether it be a management role, or a leadership role.

What’s most damaging, is when we start interchanging the two functions, believing that great managers can become great leaders, and that great leaders have the ability to develop excellent management skills.

In most cases this just isn’t true.

Successful leaders are by their very nature big picture, strategic thinkers who have a relentless vision and the ability to inspire and influence others to get on board with that vision.

Alternatively, great managers are able to organise and maintain systems and structures and have the ability to motivate and mobilise their people to get the best out of them.

Despite our best efforts, it’s still notoriously difficult to push a square peg into a round hole.

That’s why it’s far more effective to pinpoint the real demands of the role – whether manager or leader – and hire or develop people based on those demands and those success criteria.

Moving away from semantics within management and leadership allows us to hire and promote the right person, rather than trying to push a square peg into a round hole.

Are you a manager yourself? How do you view the difference between leadership vs. management? Do you feel all managers ought to learn leadership? Is it possible?

Leave your opinion, thoughts and feedback in the comments section – I’d love to hear your views.

8 Comments

  • SR

    May 7, 2015

    What a great read!!
    My Master’s dissertation explored much of this concept as did my book, Personal and Leadership Development, which looked at the foundations for continuous growth.
    I think the ‘leaders are born’ debate is never ending because it isn’t so black and white, but I do accept that everybody has an established personality temperament that lends itself more to leadership or management (John C. Maxwell) whether that is by nature or nurture. A detailed focussed person will probably more of a manager than a leader and a bottom line, bigger picture person will be more of a leader. If I develop my strengths I will become brilliant, but if I develop my weaknesses I will become average ??????

    I think the biggest problem is the way we use the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ to describe positions in a company or a set of skills. Some of the greatest managers in my career have been my [often low paid] admin, secretary and reception workers. They are the ‘Jesus bolt’ to the helicopter rotor-blades; they hold so much together. It is the same with leadership. Finding the people on my team that have the influence and getting them on-side is often more effective than trying to be the leader to everyone myself. Influence exists at all levels.

    I study this stuff, have qualifications and have authored my own book and yet, I still have a good deal of confusion defining my role in the workplace as a leader or manager. I recommend that people never stop learning and always accept that some answers may never be found.

    • RPX2 Web Team

      May 12, 2015

      Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your insights here. “Jesus bolt” is a great term! Your book sounds fascinating – can I ask…What prompted you to focus on that topic and what were your conclusions as regards Leadership Development?

  • Anonymous

    October 18, 2015

    Spot on! What leadership theories often neglect is the importance of context. What works in on situation may be determental in another. A great read and reminder!

    • RPx2 Web Team

      November 3, 2015

      Thanksfor your comment – so pleased you enjoyed the article.

  • Anonymous

    October 19, 2015

    Great article. I think the two roles are very different and necessary. You can learn to be a leader-better leader, but only if you have a leadership trait in the first place. All the corporate attempts to sheep dip managers to become leaders are doomed to failure and will only make matters worse.

  • JF

    December 2, 2016

    What a terrific article, I was captivated from beginning to end. I do believe however that in order to be a good leader you have to learn to be a good follower first.
    I particularly like the section that covered wanting to become a manager in the past is now wanting to become a leader. We live in an instant gratitude society were TITLE is more important to an individual than anything else. Why become a manager when you can become a leader, you can’t start out as a leader experience will get you there. You may have been born a leader but you need to learn where your leadership is warranted.

    • RPx2 Web Team

      December 7, 2016

      Thank you for commenting – so glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Anonymous

    March 11, 2017

    Excellent article that really captured the clear differences between the roles. Too often, businesses do not identify the different skill sets required or try to shoehorn individuals to fill a vacancy rather than taking the more difficult decision to say to the individual that they are not suited to a leadership role.