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Difference Between Leadership and Management May 11, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: , , ,

John P. Kotter has written some excellent stuff about this topic and has been a big influence on my thinking. See especially “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review 90,3 (May-June 1990), reprint number 90309. “Management is about coping with complexity … Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.” He describes the characteristic leadership activities as: (1) setting a direction, (2) aligning people, and (3) motivating and inspiring. The corresponding and complementary management activities are: (1) planning and budgeting, (2) organizing and staffing, and (3) controlling and problem solving. I’ve seen many managers who embrace the “coping with complexity” part of the job (unfortunately often excluding those subordinates who could do as well, if not better), but struggle with the “coping with change” part, and that’s where leadership comes in.

The first set of complements — setting a direction (leadership) and planning & budgeting (management) — has always resonated for me. I believe a team needs to know where they’re headed, what the destination looks like, and how they’ll know when you get there. Of course you may never “get there,” which leads to an interesting discussion of the value of continuous improvement vs. achieving a goal and failing to set a new one. The management activity of planning is the process of determining how to get there, how to apply the available resources (people, money), and the balancing / prioritization of external constraints Unfortunately I’ve seen too many examples of planning and managing resources without any communication regarding direction, and that leads to wasted effort during times of rapid or disruptive change when the direction doesn’t make sense any more.

Here’s the kicker: I believe that if the team understands and buys-into the direction, they can take over many (most?) of the tactical planning and resource management functions. We want our teams to do that, right? We don’t want them to have to check-in with their superior all the time, or take some random action that’s completely disconnected from the direction.

What’s the right direction? That’s a topic for a future post, but I think it’s important to recognize that the highest ranking person in the organization is not necessarily the best source. It reminds me of the quote attributed to a French radical (from The West Wing): “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.” The leadership comes in recognizing these groundswells, soliciting input from all levels of the organization, and using that forward momentum.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the complements above: leadership is about aligning people, management is about organizing and staffing. In this context, organizing is (from Kotter): “creat[ing] human systems that can implement plans as precisely and efficiently as possible.” It’s the organization chart and the job descriptions and the relationships between different functions. Staffing is populating the org chart, moving people into the right slots, and hiring / training / developing people to maximize their productivity (a subject for a later post). Aligning people (the leadership part) is a communication activity. Leaders need to use every conversation, every social encounter as an opportunity to reinforce the “direction message.”

And that brings me to the third set of complements: leadership is motivating people, management is controlling and problem solving. Again, this comes back to the urgent need for leadership during times of change. When processes are in-control, management means comparing performance output to the plan and taking action when deviations occur. However, when processes are out-of-control, or if they’re no longer able to deliver desired results, then change has to happen. For change to happen you have to convince people that the status-quo is unacceptable, and that’s where motivation comes in.

I’ll close this post with something I alluded to earlier. One of the most important jobs of a leader is to develop new leaders from within the organization. I believe it’s easier for most people to learn management skills than leadership skills. Valuable leaders take the time to coach and mentor others and help them understand the difference between management and leadership.




1. Andrew - May 12, 2009


Clearly you are off to a good start, well written. I loved the west wing quote! How true.

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