Management vs. Leadership….Or Is It?

Written By Randy Hall  |  Leadership, Management 


It’s hard to work in the area of developing leaders without addressing the issue of management versus leadership. Much debate has been had about what each of these words means in the business world and which one is more important. Recently, I’ve even heard a lot of discussion about the issue of individuals leading too much and not managing enough. One example of that is a recent article from Harvard Business Review that states:

“”Big picture only” leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway.”

Leadership has become, for some, an idea that you sit atop the organization and gaze upon it from a lofty perch where you make disconnected decisions and advance your own ideas. That’s not leadership or management, that’s simply abuse of power.

The very notion that the focus of leadership is on the actions of the leader is flawed. Leadership is about others. It’s about being the catalyst for great things to be accomplished by those who otherwise might accomplish less.

The definition of leadership I use when I work with clients is this: causing individuals, organizations, or communities to achieve more of their potential in a positive, sustainable way. When working from that perspective, someone who makes uninformed decisions from a detached position isn’t a leader, no matter what position he or she happens to hold. Those decisions can’t cause the organization and the individuals who make it up to achieve more, and often result in actually hampering the success of the business.

Leadership isn’t about authority, and when we associate being a leader with having a position of power, we start the discussion in the wrong place. While it’s true that great leaders often achieve positions of authority, it’s also true that positions of authority are sometimes occupied by those without the faintest idea of what real leadership is.

It’s impossible for a leader to help an organization accomplish more if he or she doesn’t understand the culture, the goals, the challenges and the opportunities of the organization. That would be like a coach trying to lead a team to victory without knowing the rules of the sport. That’s why it’s impossible to lead without being a capable manager. Management is about the mechanics of the role. It’s about the tasks of executing a job where others report to you. I can’t win a bike race without understanding how to shift gears, I can’t fly a plane without knowing how to use the instruments and I cant lead a business without understanding the details of it’s operation.

A great golf swing doesn’t by itself make you a great golfer and great management skills alone will not make you a great leader. But try being great at golf or leadership without mastering those elements, and you will find it impossible. Management is not separate from leadership; it’s a component of it.

If you are going to lead any individual or group, you must first understand the intricacies of the challenges they are facing, the barriers to their success, and how their current level of skill matches the tasks of the job. Only then can you help them accomplish more. Great managers understand those details. They immerse themselves in the business in a way that gives them the understanding they need to lead it effectively.

Leadership is also not something that can be done from a distance. We can’t lead from an ivory tower or an office atop a tall building. We can only lead in the presence of others. So unless there are lots of others from the organization crammed into our office as well, we better not spend too much time there.

It’s time we stop thinking of management and leadership as separate and opposing skills. Until we start thinking differently about this, we will continue to develop leaders in our businesses who are too detached and managers who focus on metrics more than the people who generate them. Both are fatal in the long run.

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