So what’s the big difference between leadership and management?

Every week I talk to managers who fear they might be failing the leadership test.

Every week I work with teams who feel their managers are not leaders.

Recently I read an article by John Kotter where he spent 650 words bemoaning the fact that people use the terms “manager” and “leader” interchangeably.

This really set my teeth grinding because, for me, this totally misses the point.

In real companies, in real teams, real people want real managers. That’s managers who are better leaders.

But what do they mean when they say “better leaders”?  What’s missing?

@MoyraMackie asks: Do the differences between leadership and management really matter to you?

When I Googled “Leadership” I got over 6 billion results.  Amazon sells 67,000 books on Leadership.  So, thousands of trees have been sacrificed and millions of words have been written in the name of Leadership.

There are plenty of people, apart from John Kotter, who make a good living giving us snappy definitions of the distinctions between Management and Leadership.  Heck, I’ve done it myself (and if you click the link below you can see what I think).  But the best definitions have come from auditors, lawyers and IT folks on my Leadership training programs.

What Kotter, the Compliance Department, and I all agree on is that “Leadership” is essentially about the WHERE and WHY, as opposed to the WHAT.

So if the difference between the two is so important, are we saying that it is desirable to have managers WITHOUT communication skills, able to deliver the WHAT without any ability to communicate the WHERE and WHY?

The promotion to “Manager” will inevitably lead to a title on a business card, probably a salary hike and possibly a better office.  But what should separate this manager from the team he or she leads? (Sorry John, there I go again linking managers with leadership!)

But seriously, why is that so few of us can look around and point to many people who are in management positions that we would describe as “good leaders”?

Why, if we have lots of information at our fingertips on how to be better leaders, and we agree that leadership skills are vitally important to the success of teams and organisations, why are leaders so hard to find?

Perhaps it’s because like most of the best things in life, Leadership is simple in theory but tough in practice?

So if being a better leader is tough, wouldn’t it be better to coach or train our potential managers on the WHERE and WHY (and a little know HOW) before they’re handed the shiny new business cards and a team to practice on?

Before the WHAT they do becomes behaviour, and any bad behaviour becomes a habit?

Steve Cooper in Forbes magazine describes successful managers as those who can:

  • Communicate and inspire
  • Hold themselves and others accountable

At the same time a Harvard Business Review survey shows :

“the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.”

Why is this?

Without training, coaching or support, there are so many leadership traps that managers can fall into

And perhaps the biggest is that of being too controlling.

Managers who are inexperienced, or under time pressure, confuse the need to be “in control” with being “controlling”.  If you do fall into the controlling trap, you may well find that your team responds by giving up even more of the control to you.

You can recognise this when teams start to give up responsibility or accountability for getting things done, or getting things done right and done on time. When this happens, those in management roles tend to blame their teams and respond with more control measures.

This usually involves telling people exactly how to do things or even reverting to doing those things themselves.

And a negative cycle takes hold.

Managers who can hold others accountable and can also inspire and communicate are those who can take a leap of faith, (otherwise known as trust), as well as exercise self-control and self-awareness.

Management is about action and implementation.  Leaders are those who can have difficult conversations, who can hold others accountable and can inspire action.

And that’s why we need managers who can ALSO lead.

I’m with Simon Sinek who says

“Being a good leader is just like being a good parent. They are one and the same. Leadership is a human activity. And just like leadership, being a parent is more than a 9 to 5 job.

The joy of parenting doesn’t come from the work of being a parent, it comes from seeing our children do things that delight us and make us feel proud. Leadership is exactly the same.

The more we are inspired by the amazingness of our people, of our kids, the more we can inspire them.”

Both parenting and leadership are not things we are born to or naturally good at. It’s something we have to work at and continually learn from.


What do you think? Am I missing anything?

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I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank