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).

Analysing stakeholders

While reading a piece of required reading to accompany Book 1 of B120, I came across an interesting model called the Stakeholder Power and Interest Matrix. I can’t reproduce the diagram here (but a Google Search reveals several versions), but I felt it was pretty useful in categorising stakeholders, of which (according to the model) there are four types.

Category A stakeholders are those that are low power and have a low level of interest, and therefore require minimal effort.

Category B stakeholders are those with a high level of interest and low power, and therefore have to be kept informed in order to avoid them repositioning themselves on the matrix by escalating any lack of involvement with Category B or Category A stakeholders.

Category C stakeholders are those with high power but a relatively low level of interest. These stakeholders need to be kept satisfied in order to avoid them escalating any dissatisfaction with Category D stakeholders.

Category D stakeholders are the ‘key players’ who have to be kept informed and satisfied. They have a high level of power and a high level of interest. If they are not given serious consideration, they have the power to block plans and implement their own agenda.

The trust building loop

The trust building loop is a concept centred around the idea that trust should be developed incrementally, with the successful outcome of each step serving to reinforce trust and underpin more ambitious collaboration. Through the accumulation of ‘small wins’ (Bryson, 1988), the trust building loops builds on itself over time.

However, it could be argued that the ‘small wins’ approach is overly-simplistic; while it may work with low-risk collaborations, or collaborations that are not heavily constrained by time, it may not be such an appropriate strategy in more ambitious collaborative contexts, or those that do not have the luxury of time in which to develop trust incrementally.

Some more features of collaborative contexts that impact on initiating the loop are:

  • ambiguity and complexity of the collaborative context
  • the difficulty in clarifying aims, expectations, and the collaborative agenda
  • managing risk while trust develops.

There are also several features of collaborative contexts that impact on sustaining the loop.

  • the constantly changing dynamics of collaboration
  • power imbalances within a collaborative context
  • the need for nurturing and continuous effort to sustain trust.

(Source: Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Ten questions to ask before setting goals

  1. Are the goals too specific?
  2. Are the goals too challenging?
  3. Have the goals been agreed by those who will be expected to achieve them?
  4. Is the time horizon appropriate?
  5. How might the goals affect risk-taking?
  6. How might the goals result in unethical behaviour?
  7. Can the goals be tailored for individuals while remaining fair to all?
  8. Will the goals have an influence on organisational culture?
  9. Will individuals be intrinsically motivated?
  10. Given the organisational objectives, are learning goals more appropriate than performance goals?

(Source: Academy of Management Perspectives, 2009, cited in B325, Organizational Collaboration).