Why Leadership Isn’t Better Than Management

I came across an article the other day that makes a common but misguided argument. In Shifting from Manager to Leader,” Sara Canaday encourages managers to move to a “higher level” and become leaders—implying that leadership is a higher and more valuable pursuit than management.

The distinction between leader and manager is nothing new. In fact, it’s been written about extensively since the 1970s. Canaday’s piece is very much in line with conventional wisdom, which assumes the following: Leadership is the more advanced, honorable discipline. Managers are those taskmasters we see in Dilbert and Office Space, unhelpfully focused on the details. In this paradigm, it’s much better to evolve from manager to leader, transforming into someone with charisma, big-picture vision, and influence.

To be fair, Canaday’s article does acknowledge that management attributes are positive as well, and her other advice—prioritize personal growth, expand your perspectives, etc.—is sound. But she contends that there’s “no contest” between manager and leader characteristics. “It’s like comparing a small pond with the ocean,” she writes.

As someone who’s been in the CEO role for over twenty years, this line of reasoning seems simplistic and even harmful. I agree that there is a difference between management and leadership, and that leadership is a necessary and valuable pursuit. But if I were hiring an executive and you gave me a choice between Jane, who excels at management but isn’t necessarily a compelling leader, and John, who can’t manage well but has typical leader characteristics like the ability to inspire—nine times out of ten I’m going to pick Jane.

How I Define the Difference 

Here is how I think about the distinction between management and leadership:

Management: Making decisions about the things you have control over. This includes deciding how to allocate resources, who to hire, who does what, and how it all moves the team toward the desired end state. It also includes monitoring the organization, detecting issues, and intervening to help people solve them as quickly as possible.

Leadership: Influencing the things you do not have direct control over. This includes how inspired and engaged your employees are, how much effort they put in, and how clear they are on the big-picture vision for the organization.

“Stop Managing”? 

Defined this way, management and leadership are complementary skills that should be developed together instead of dropping one in favor of the other. That applies even to those at the very top of the organization. CEOs are often thought of as the ultimate leaders, steeped in strategy and visionary perspective, but the best CEOs are often excellent managers too. And although you’ll find countless articles titled “Stop Managing and Start Leading,” the idea of abandoning management seems less than wise.

Think of a field army headed into battle. If the general has gotten the troops all fired up with a rousing speech, but he hasn’t ensured that the right people are in the right places and properly trained to do the right things, that army isn’t going to defeat anyone. Yet this is the type of style-over-substance approach we subtly promote when we praise leaders at the expense of managers.

Finding a Balance 

In reality, management and leadership are more intertwined than most of us think. Take a look at the 12 questions Gallup uses to measure employee engagement. By my estimation, they are about evenly split between questions relating to management (“Do you know what is expected of you at work?”) and questions related to leadership (“Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?”). This means that good management can also drive engagement. You could even say that excellent management is itself a form of leadership.

By the same token, “leadership” shouldn’t be restricted to the upper echelons of the organization. Frontline managers and employees can display excellent leadership ability. They don’t need to wait until they reach a certain tier to start working on being leaders.

Ever since Abraham Zaleznik made an influential call for more leadership in the business world back in 1977, the scale has been tipped toward “leader” attributes and away from the “manager.” Leadership may be more appealing to executive and consultant types, but if you don’t tend to the management side of your job, you will not be effective.

As my book “The CEO Tightrope” outlines, I think a balance is best. If you’re a great manager but struggling to have influence and vision, by all means work on developing your leadership ability. But also be aware that the inverse can be even worse: the leader who can’t manage. If you suspect that’s you, seek out ways to reconnect with the day-to-day realities of your organization. Hiring a COO might be a good idea.

I would strongly advocate that we appreciate and develop real management skill in our organizations even as we appreciate strong leadership—rather than encourage a shift from one to the other.


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