How to differentiate leadership from management… and why it’s not as different as you think

Sometimes it’s easy for us to declare ‘poor leadership’ or declare individuals ‘managers not leaders’ but do we really know what we mean when we say these things? We love to draw distinctions between management and leadership, but are leadership and management fundamentally different roles in practice?

Most articles, business theorists and commentators alike tell us that “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing” and “management is administration, but leadership is innovation.” and “Leaders build relationships, managers build systems and processes.”
Even when I talk to people around and within the business I hear constant complaints and exasperation’s declaring their managers as ‘poor leaders’ or despondently declaring individuals ‘managers not leaders’. These conversations made clear to me that we think of managers having an entirely different focus from leaders. Most articles you read now also clearly separate the two roles. And yet this distinction blurs significantly when you look at the actual daily activities of these people in charge. The majority of the activities undertaken are very similar, or even identical — delegating, reporting, learning, motivating, and so on.

So, are leadership and management really different in practice? Are we expecting too much of managers? And should they also be leaders?

It does make a difference if we look at leadership and management through a functional lens. Perhaps the most functional definition of leadership vs management I have found is John Kotter’s definition:

“Leadership promotes new directions; management executes existing directions”

Whilest arguably not entirely correct, this definition can be a timely reminder of the pressures, accountabilities and responsibilities put on managers & leaders alike in organisations that accept this definition. If you are tasked, measured and remunerated based on executing near-term objectives and directions you can perhaps be forgiven sometimes for not being so ‘future thinking’ and inspiring for change. However, simply defining leaders as those who ‘create a vision to inspire and engage their people’ may be underselling as well… Because how can leadership be truly inspiring or revolutionary if it simply promotes a better way and has nothing to do with actually getting things done through people and successfully executing the change?

Both leaders and managers have responsibilities day-to-day that involve; reporting deliverables, tasking people, tracking progress, so why do we still think leadership and management is entirely different?

Research has found that the crucial difference – maybe the only difference between how we distinguish the two — is the focus and behaviors of the person carrying the activities out. Research by University of Texas found, from interviews of employees to compare manager and leaders, that the only distinguishable difference was not what the leaders/managers were doing, but rather simply their behavior. Proposing the simple conclusion that:

Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management; but what you’re actually doing may not be that different, but your behavior will define how people perceive you.

John Kotter was on the right track in saying that leaders and managers have different functions. And yes you shoudl perhaps go a little easy on declaring your manager a ‘poor leader’ when he or she is required to focus so short term and on delivery. But, crucially, I believe we need to stick to a behavioral story to create an organisation where everyone can engage in some managing and some leading regardless of role or title.

Management can, and should, do much more than merely keep things ticking over. Managers can be inspiring and promote innovation. They can empower, nurture and develop talent. Managers needn’t be restricted to mechanical control, transactional rewards, bureaucratic methods or relating without empathy.
And conversely leaders need to remember they are required to deliver, not just be innovative, engaging, influential and inspiring change-advocates, but remember that getting important things done/achieved is just as important to the business and to maintaining their ability to continue to inspire and build trust and following in people, as a leader.

Regardless of role, every person can be a ‘leader’, it ultimately comes down to carrying out your activities with a focus on people.


What have you learnt is the key difference between managers and leaders? Are we too hard on managers?



One thought on “How to differentiate leadership from management… and why it’s not as different as you think

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  1. I think Managers are responsible for ‘doing’ and Leaders are responsible for ‘forecasting’ and i dont mean that in a bad way, just that Managers often have more tangible deliverables so are focused on them, where Leaders have more freedom to think and adapt… but in saying that i agree that Managers can and should be Leaders by behaviour too!!


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