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).