Leadership and management: same or different?

leadership vs management

Are leadership and management the same or different? And does your answer to this question matter? Yes and yes, writes Roger Collins

There is a tendency in the media, in speeches and other communications by CEOs and senior executives and even in business schools to use the terms leadership and management interchangeably. This tendency confounds two of the most important terms and roles in organisations and limits our attempts to enhance their performance, ensure their sustainability and engage our people.

The confusion may in part arise from the fact that both have evolved with the shared purpose of influencing peoples’ behaviour and contributions to achieve outcomes for an organisation, a cause or a community.

But this is where the critical differences begin. One of the most distinguishing differences is the basis on which a manager or leader exerts their influence. Let me explain with an analogy. Depression is perhaps the greatest and most costly individual dysfunction in our society. Recent data suggests that it is present in epidemic proportions. The initial remedial intervention is often medication which can alleviate many of the symptoms and enable the person to think more rationally.

“Leaders focus primarily on the future and the link to those that they seek to lead”

But medication is not a long-term solution: it can assist a sufferer to move from the depths of despair to a neutral state, but not to a place where the person is thriving and enjoying a contented and fulfilling life. This second step is best achieved with various forms of psychotherapy that enable the person to change how they think and behave.

The parallel is that management can lift weak performance to satisfactory performance usually through compliance, that is this is your job description, you will be rewarded for meeting your KPIs, and your continued employment depends upon meeting these standards and outputs. This is a quasi-commercial/legal power base.

However, leadership relies on a psychological and sociological contract. The leader’s behaviour and persona create a bond which develops a volunteer mindset in the followers. These differences in how influence is exercised have profound implications for how we identify and develop our leaders and managers. For example, the personal attributes and interpersonal competence of a leader are more critical. Leaders don’t necessarily occupy formal positions in organisations. Generally, managers are more focused on performance and implementation of a strategy or plan.

In contrast, leaders focus primarily on the future and the link to those that they seek to lead; they use the attraction of a better and more rewarding future to motivate, express a more personal interest in the holistic wellbeing of their people, and may use more symbolic means such as pictures and stories to engage their followers. According to Morgan McCall (Recasting leadership development, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, volume 3, March 2010), there are five primary demands of management:

  1. Clarifying roles and contributions and developing supportive systems and processes
  2. Ensuring the availability of adequate information, equipment and other resources
  3. Developing commitment to quality and excellence
  4. Providing feedback on performance
  5. Accountability for behaviour and results.

“What really makes a difference to organisational performance and the quality of the experiences of people is the required balance of contribution between the managerial and leadership roles”

In contrast, he argues that effective leaders add value by:

  1. Setting and communicating direction
  2. Aligning individuals and groups of people to a common purpose
  3. Role modelling and communicating agreed values
  4. Demonstrating self development and growing others
  5. Ensuring their own authenticity and integrity.

Clearly there is a degree of overlap in the two roles which brings us to a final, important yet often overlooked point. The distinction between the two roles does not imply that one is more important than the other. What really makes a difference to organisational performance and the quality of the experiences of people is the required balance of contribution between the managerial and leadership roles.

How managers and leaders exercise influence depicts the challenge for CEOs, executives and boards. In relative terms, what does our organisation and what do our people need at this time, in these circumstances, in the light of our current performance and future aspirations? Have we got the balance right?

At the risk of using contentious examples, there was a time recently when Qantas could be said to be over-managed and under-led. Its financial performance was clearly satisfactory in an extremely challenging industry and environment. Other indicators suggested that its leadership was not delivering highly engaged and productive staff.

Conversely, in a former time, IAG may have been over-led and undermanaged. So the challenge for us all is to understand and leverage the differences in these central organisational roles, identify and develop people to be effective in each, and finally to match the balance of contribution to the current and emergent needs of our organisation and our people.

What’s the difference between leadership and management?

  • A strong case can be made that leadership and management are different.
  • One is not more important than the other despite the current hot flavour of leadership.
  • The difference is important because of the different ways in which each adds value to your organisation and your people.
  • Different people have preferences and predispositions for each role.
  • The most crucial issue is getting the balance right in your organisation in terms of the contributions of both roles.