Leadership vs. Management

Lately, I’ve heard and read the terms leadership and management used interchangeably a surprising number of times.  I’m sure this happens frequently because people like me, with small vocabularies, often just grasp at whatever term comes to mind in conversation in an attempt to convey what we mean without breaking stride.  Other times, it seems that these words are substituted for one another simply because the user of the word hasn’t thought about its real meaning.  In either case it’s important to note that these terms are not synonyms and, in fact, have entirely different meanings.  I don’t bring this up as some technical squabble with the use of the English language – honestly, if you’re not one of my kids, I could care less how you use the language.  The importance of this point lies in the the application of the concepts behind the terms and how they apply to running a business.  To me, understanding the difference between leadership and management and how and when to utilize such abilities is critical to building and maintaining a successful organization. 

Let me get the most controversial part of this discussion out of the way . . . not only are leadership and management very different, they are completely unique skills.  Very few people have the capability to be both a great leader and a terrific manager.  Furthermore, those few that excel at both cannot effectively apply those skills simultaneously in a business context.  What I mean by this is that the methods involved with leading and managing are very often at odds with one another; leading well means violating some of the most basic requirements of managing well and vice-versa.

Management, by its very nature, is exacting, precise, detailed and involves specific and usually, timed, actions.  Leadership, on the other hand, requires a much broader brush and involves aligning, goal-setting, vision-sharing (selling), inspiration and an inherent lack of any time criticality.  One’s leadership ability is compromised if they have to paint a big picture of the future in the morning, then hold employees to specific deliverables in the afternoon.  Similarly, a manager’s ability to keep their group focused on the task at hand is diminished if they regularly espouse what could be instead of what is.

As Warren Bennis, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California states in his seminal book, On Becoming A Leader:

“To understand the difference, we first need to define leadership and management. Leadership is changing for better results; it is challenging the status quo and looking at the long term. Management, on the other hand, is consistency for better results; it is maintaining the status quo and focusing on short-term results. Management is about completing a project on time and on budget. Leadership and management, therefore, seem to contradict each other.”

Of course, Good management includes aspects of good leadership and good leadership includes aspects of good management.  A leader devoid of management skill and a manager lacking any leadership capability will each fail.  Referring to the chart, below, you’d never want to rely on a leader or manager with a skill set that puts them at either end of the curve.  You’d want their abilities to be in the area bounded by red and purple.  A combination of skills is important – a blend with more management ability for managers and one with more leadership ability for leaders, of course.

semi-superfluous chart showing the inverse relationship between leadership and management skills

A while back, when I was CEO of Viewlogic (acquired by Synopsys in 1997), I was having dinner with the then VP of Engineering for Apple Computer.  At the time, the big secret project inside Apple was the ongoing development of the iMac – that’s the original one with a CRT.  The VP was late for dinner and when she came into the restaurant she was exasperated.  It seems that virtually all of the engineering work for the computer was complete when one S. Jobs made the proclamation earlier that day that the case for the computer needed to be transparent.

This was not a simple task.  The inside of computers are generally not very pretty and having a CRT made things a lot worse.  This wasn’t an issue of cleaning up the wiring in the box.  All the electronics, especially the CRT needed to be shielded so that the computer could meet FCC regulations for emissions.  Doing this AND making it pretty inside a clear case would require a tremendous amount of re-engineering.

Steve Jobs, an example of a great leader, for sure, saw the value of colorful, transparent cases for Apple’s all-in-one computers.  He recognized its effect on the market and the long-term impact on Apple’s future positioning and sales.  Truly believing in the value this change had, he sold the idea to the company, which latched onto it fervently – timing and difficulty be damned.  The substantial engineering task created in the aftermath of this decision was left to this VP who focused all her energies on managing its successful implementation – without much relief in the delivery schedule, as it turned out.

Leaders lead.  Managers deliver. 

“Management is getting people to do what needs to be done. Leadership is getting people to want to do what needs to be done. Managers push. Leaders pull. Managers command. Leaders communicate.” – Warren Bennis

So what makes a person excel as a leader or manager?  My personal belief is that management is a science and, for the most part, can be learned.  Leadership, however, is an art.  While some of the capabilities necessary to being a great leader can be acquired over time, much of what makes terrific leaders great is instinctive or, at the very least, was learned much earlier in life. 

Natural leaders have the ability to think in an unbounded way, without limitations or having their thoughts overly restricted by the practicalities associated with implementation.  This is not to say that great leaders don’t understand what it takes to make things happen.  They simply don’t let such knowledge stand in the way of seeing what’s ahead and choosing a path to take.  Many of the other qualities of great leaders are shared with those of great salespeople – the ability to sell, obviously, and to communicate their passion to large groups of people in a way that makes their audience consume the Kool-Aid.

Great managers, on the other hand, are excellent planners and are, generally, very well organized.  They, too, need to be good communicators, but with a much more focused, hands-on approach.  The fundamental tools that a manager has include their ability to teach, guide, cajole, listen and and constantly refine.  Managers have to be knowledgeable about what their team is tasked to deliver AND the process required to deliver it.  They are able to match skills to tasks and to orchestrate the ever-changing puzzle of fitting disparate pieces together into a well-designed whole.  They are a teacher, mother, director and guidance counselor all rolled into one.  Above all, they shoulder the day-to-day responsibility in the organization.

For me, this last part may be the biggest difference between the disciplines and makes management a more difficult role than leadership.  For the most part, leadership takes place with only long-term responsibility for results and the relationship between a leader’s actions and results are often a bit hazy.  Management, on the other hand, carries with it recurring, short-term responsibility.  The quality of a manager is always being observed and tested.

A successful organization can’t exist without both strong leadership and great management.  Over time, an organization will need to expand its team of managers to keep up with its increasing number of deliverables.  The leadership team, however, will grow at a much slower rate or, perhaps, not at all.  Too many leaders, like too many chefs, will really foul things things up.  Too few managers will leave a huge implementation void.  One type of person is unlikely to successfully fill in for the other.  Keep this in mind the next time you’re building a team to start a new enterprise or making changes to a team already in place. 


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