Is It Useful to Attempt Distinctions Between Leadership & Management?

— October 26, 2018

I don’t think so and here’s why…

I always appreciate a fellow writer’s attempt to inform and very much appreciate business publications such as Forbes. And yet, I was very disappointed to read an article that yet again tries to make elementary distinctions between leadership and management that are:
1. Not helpful or useful
2. Don’t make sense

And because this type of discussion (making distinctions between management and leadership) is still being circulated I wanted to address the points of this article as a way of addressing the often confusing and less than useful discussion.

Here is a link to the article, the title of which is 9 Differences Between Being a Leader & a Manager

Just as a reminder, my expertise is in how human behavior and several of the sciences around it play out in leadership, management, and business overall. For the sake of length, I won’t be able to go into great depth, just share key points.

Before we go further, I do get a sense of what he’s trying to communicate – you don’t want to be just a manager, you should want to be a leader – but unfortunately the attempt of describing “good leadership” is set against significant inaccurate explanations of being a manager and degrades what otherwise are valuable functions in businesses. The subtext is, “you don’t want to be a manager, you want to be a leader”.

Businesses need great managers! Business need people who want to be managers!

…not just leaders.

That’s why we champion them and are so committed to the work we do.

Also, this is exactly the reason people don’t want to be managers. This is incredibly unfortunate!! There is an epidemic of bad management. We should be championing management not “dissing it”!

The industry glamorizes leadership, promotes aspirations to it rather than promoting the behaviors that get outcomes no matter the title or role. We are all leaders and managers, in some way, whether we have a title or not.

Key Point => Though we use these words leader and manager as roles or titles, they are actually a variety of behaviors. To achieve needed results, you need particular behaviors at a particular time. So emphasizing roles or titles distracts and confuses from the essential focus — what behavior is needed in this context to get the best result.

Here are the points of the article with my comments:

Point 1: Leaders create a vision, managers create goals.
In understanding how the mind works, creating goals is creating a vision. Creating is visualizing. A manager/leader has to help their team “see” where they are going, people see in pictures and movies. So the better way to convey this is senior leaders may create the overarching vision, while leader/managers at lower levels create “micro or mini visions” to accomplish needed results.

2. Leaders are change agents, managers maintain the status quo.

In order to achieve anything in business, behavior has to be constantly adapting to perform tasks, have conversations, manage productivity, etc. As managers are helping their teams do these and other performance elements, they are actually managing change (behavior responses) as needed.

The essence of performance management is change management. The essence of coaching is change management … the very point of coaching is to ask for a change. If managers managed the status quo how can a company survive…stay agile to respond to the ever-changing needs of the marketplace. Managers are in fact active change agents.

By the way, in the article, one of the explanations in this section, “managers stick with what works, refining systems, structures & processes to make them better” describes a form of change. Refining requires change of some kind.

3. Leaders are unique, managers copy.

In the explanation, it’s suggested leaders are authentic and manager aren’t. “Managers mimic the competencies and behaviors they learn from others and adopt their leadership style rather than defining it.” This implies managers don’t have minds of their own and don’t function from an authentic self or brand. This is just not true.

4. Leaders take risks, managers control risk.

Honestly, this point is just ridiculous. “Managers work to minimize risk. They seek to avoid or control problems rather than embracing them.” I don’t know how anyone can be an effective manager if they avoid problems. Even key “leaders” minimize risk as a strategy when attempting something new. And I’ve seen plenty of “leaders” avoid problems. And to suggest that managers don’t try new things is absurd.

Ok I’m only on #5 and am finding it painful to work through these blanket broad stroke statements that paint a grossly inaccurate picture of managers. So I’m going to couple the next few and skip a few:

6. Leaders grow personally, managers rely on existing, proven skills.

In order to be an effective manager or leader growing in knowledge and skill set is essential. In fact I find official leaders at higher levels resist personal growth, while managers at lower levels invite it because they know they need to it to advance professionally and they are at the greatest point of impact with employees.

7. Leaders build relationships, managers build systems and processes.

I don’t know how anyone can manage without a relationship of some kind with their team members. The statement, “leaders focus on people…managers focus on systems” doesn’t make sense. You have to manage the people that execute the systems.

8. Leaders coach, managers direct.

Again emphasizing that leading and managing is about behaviors, part of coaching is directing and part of directing is coaching. Coaching and directing are ways of communicating to influence a different result. In fact, I have not experienced very many leaders who are good coaches.

9. Leaders create fans, managers have employees.

I know many managers who’ve cultivated fans. I’m a fan of many of the mangers I’ve worked with in my young career and I know leaders who don’t have many fans…who just see and treat the folks they lead as “employees”.

In conclusion:

Anyone who leads is a manager and leader because they express behaviors necessary to get results no matter the level.

As leader/manager, you are only as effective as it relates to your ability to get outcomes with the people you are leading in your current context – no matter your title or role.

I think he was attempting to make black and white distinctions between being a leader and being a manager suggesting desired qualities vs undesirable, but you really can’t. We need leaders, we need managers…because we need the behaviors of both as he defining them.

By the way, the definition of “managing” is to handle and direct with a degree of skill — you need the “leader” qualities suggested in this article to successfully achieve this.

Please, let’s suspend any further debates or discussion about the difference between leadership and management and focus on what behaviors are needed to achieve desired results.

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Author: JoAnn Corley

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