Leadership vs. Management

I was having a discussion with my wife the other day about the differences between “leadership” and “management.” And then to that prickly question of what is meant by “authority.” So here were my general thoughts on the matter, and how they relate to government:

“Management” is the “what” and the “how.” Leadership is the “why.” A good manager understands what the organization needs to accomplish (the “what”) and has a plan of execution to meet those goals (the “how”). Good leaders have a solid strategic vision (the “why”) and know how to motivate those around them. Good leaders are almost always good managers, but good managers do not always make good leaders.

From what I’ve seen in practice, the key differentiator between managers and leaders is the ability to motivate their employees. We’ve all worked for managers that were intelligent, outstanding individual contributors…but can’t handle the inevitable push and pull between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Another trait of a leader: they recognize the difference between positional authority and knowledge authority. Subordinate employees, especially those that have been in their position for awhile, have generally developed very specific knowledge about their particular area, and have a network of folks across the organization they can use as a back-channel for information. This is “knowledge authority.” The most difficult manager I ever worked for viewed this as a threat to their power, instead of an asset to be leveraged for the good of the team.

Which brings me to positional authority, or “pulling rank.” A good leader does everything in their power to avoid this. You’ll get compliance in the short term, but also have the potential to breed intense resentment in the long run. In my own experience, the most dysfunctional organizations rely on positional authority. These organizations have the most fires to put out on a daily basis, because their employees are too paralyzed to make any decisions.

So, what do you think? What is the difference between leadership and management?

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Bruce Lynn

Leaders optimise upside opportunity, Managers minimise downside risk. Both together are needed in appropriate balance to optimise outcomes.

I’m not a big fan of the ‘what, how, why’ model of Leadership and Management because it seems shallow and brittle. For example, here you mention that a Leader recognizes ‘the difference between positional authority and knowledge authority.’ I’m not sure how that relates to the ‘why’ distinction of a Leader. Wouldn’t good Manager in your model understand this ‘how’ or how people and organisations work? To me, someone who confuses these types of authority is just a weak Leader or Manager.

Daniel Crystal

I like the opportunity vs. risk definition. As for the “why” vs. “how,” it really comes down to the expectation of managers and leaders of an organization. A manager can be fully successful in their jobs if they stay within their one specific area and do their jobs well; leaders don’t have that luxury.

I think most organizations want their managers to show characteristics of leadership. However, the difficult part is sepearting those who can merely get things done from those who can truly motivate people to do better. How many managers have you met that were extremely accomplished individual contributors, but don’t have the faintest idea how to actually run a team?

Carol Kruse

I have to agree with Peter Drucker and Dick…and I think Bruce’s opportunity and risk actually expands on Drucker’s thoughts, rather than contradicting them. This distinction has really come home to me in the past 18 months or so — the person on top of our organization changed from an open-door, open communication type of leader to a need-to-know and go-through-channels…manager. Morale is going downhill. The jobs, the things, are still getting done, just by less-happy, more-alientated, increasingly-distrustful people.

Dave Bell

Excellent posting. I think of this way:
• a boss has a whip and big drum and is charge of a bunch of people rowing a ship,
• a manager works in a warehouse and shuffles boxes,
• a supervisor oversees an assembly line and makes sure nothing falls to the floor,
• a leader uses emotional intelligence to serve willing followers and ensure their mutual success.

Pat Fiorenza

I really enjoyed this post , thanks for sharing- lots of great insights, especially on positional authority.

I think the big challenge is finding the right balance – some of us have strengths that lend us to being leaders, others managers – but to really succeed and inspire your team, you need to have both, and know when your team needs you to manage and when to lead.