The difference between leadership and management

I’ve just read an excellent article first published in Harvard Business Review by John P. Kotter, entitled ‘What Leaders Really Do’.

I used to struggle with the difference between leadership and management and didn’t fully understand how they were different, but after reading this article (chapter 3 in the B204 reader, ‘Discovering Leadership’) I do. For me this is quite a profound piece of learning.

In a nutshell, leadership isn’t a mystical quality. It has nothing to do with charisma or leadership traits. It isn’t better than management or a replacement for it. Both are distinct and complementary, and depend on each other for success.

Not everyone can be good at both leadership and management. Some are stronger leaders and some are stronger managers. Both kinds of people are valuable, but perhaps more valuable are those people who can both manage and lead. Understanding the difference is a key first step to this.

The difference between management and leadership

To quote Kotter, management is about coping with complexity, and good management brings a degree of order and consistency. Leadership is about coping with change, and more change always demands more leadership.

Companies manage complexity by planning and budgeting, setting targets, establishing detailed steps to achieve them, and allocating resources. Conversely, leading an organisation towards change involves first setting a direction or vision of the future, along with strategies for achieving that vision.

Managers develop the capacity to achieve plans by organising and staffing. They find qualified individuals, communicate the plan to them, delegate responsibility, and devise systems to monitor progress. Leaders align people by communicating the new direction to others who understand and are committed to achieving it and can help create the necessary coalitions.

Managers ensure plans are accomplished by controlling and problem solving using reports, meetings and other tools, identifying issues, and re-planning and re-organising to resolve them. Leadership involves motivating and inspiring, keeping people moving in the right direction despite major obstacles by appealing to basic human needs, values and emotions.

On reflection, this all sounds really obvious. Everything does with hindsight!

Tolstoy’s Wave

In whatever direction a ship moves the flow of waves it cuts will always be noticeable ahead of it … When the ship moves in one direction there is one and the same wave ahead of it, when it turns frequently the wave ahead of it also turns frequently. But wherever it may turn there always will be the wave anticipating its movement. Whatever happens it appears that just that event was foreseen and decreed. Wherever the ship may go, the rush of water which neither directs nor increases its movement foams ahead of it, and at a distance seems not merely to move of itself but to govern the ship’s movement also.

Tolstoy’s bow-wave metaphor for leadership provokes some interesting questions. Are leaders merely figureheads, propelled by events beyond their control even though it appears the events are controlled by them?

Leaders are in front of those they lead, but are they pulling or are they being pushed? Can you be a leader without followers? Do followers make leaders by being followers? Are leaders and followers just part of a virtuous/vicious circle feedback-loop? Must there be a leader before there are followers? Do organisations need leaders in order to be successful, or are we just used to the idea of having them?

– Grint (1997), cited in Billsberry (2009).

What is ‘reflective learning’?

Reflective learning is the deliberate process of carrying out cycles of inquiry. The term cycle refers to the way a learner switches between action and reflection. Note that the key word in this definition is deliberate.

An important part of reflective learning is a growing awareness of what is going on around you. As we don’t control everything, it is also important to learn to be aware of the impact our actions have on others.

Reflective learning is also focused on the future, so for learning to happen, you need to use your thinking to shape future action.

There are three points to consider:

  • Generating and evaluating new ideas. A crucial part of learning is doing things differently and evaluating the success of these new practices.
  • Reflecting on events and situations. We need to take time to consider what has happened and what can be learned in order to determine future actions.
  • Reflecting upon relations. As the actions of others will limit or help what we do, it is crucial to pay attention to how their actions develop.

In order to determine what to reflect on, it is necessary to ‘frame’ events or thoughts to give them a clear focus. This is simply the act of putting a boundary around them. Three possibilities for framing include:

  • Critical incidents where assumptions or existing ways of working are challenged.
  • A period of time that can be observed for recurring themes or issues that aren’t always noticeable in the moment.
  • An ongoing issue or focus of inquiry. A personal journal can be a useful tool for this.

It is important to remember that reflective learning has to be deliberate. We are deliberately seeking to change something. There is no correct method, only the right method for you.

Also remember that assumptions can be a dangerous block to learning!

And on to B204

I’ve started some of the reading for my next course – B204 Making it Happen! Leadership, influence and change. The course has been on my plan for years and I’ve been looking forward to starting it for a long time.

Our tutor has already been in touch and says this is a course with potentially life and/or career changing results, so it will be very interesting and exciting to see what happens to me over the next 12 months!

The course workload looks challenging at first glance. There seems to be quite a bit of reading, but it looks like most of the learning and reflection for the course will actually take place in the workplace – so it appears to be a very practical and relevant course for me.

I’m not sure how I will use the blog with my studies yet, but I’m sure all will become clear.

Types of power

The social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven (1958) identified five bases of power:

  • Legitimate power – stemming from a belief that a person has a right to exercise power based on their status or position.
  • Reward power – stemming from an individual’s ability to provide rewards or compensation.
  • Expert power – based on knowledge held by an individual as a result of their skills, knowledge or experience.
  • Referent power – based on personable qualities such as charisma and attractiveness.
  • Coercive power – stemming from an individual’s ability to punish or impose sanctions.

(Source: The Open University, 2012).

It appears to me that the most effective modern managers must attempt to make use of a combination of referent and expert power, perhaps backed up by some legitimate power, and maybe some reward power too. Coercive power seems like a last resort.


Raven (2008) subsequently added a sixth basis of power, which is potentially one of the most desirable types of power:

  • Informational power – stemming from an individual’s control over access to, or of quality of, information. Informational power can be as simple as telling someone how to do something, and in so doing their subsequent behaviour changes.