Many of us think we understand the difference between leadership and management, and for some people, there may appear to be no difference. But the distinctions between these two overlapping ways of engaging with others at work are significant. Thinking through them can be of immense use in developing staff at any level of an organization—and in helping emerging stars understand when they need to lead and when they need to manage.
Technical know-how and motivational guidance
One distinction involves how managers and leaders get to their respective positions. A manager is typically someone within an organization whose skills, technical capabilities, knowledge, and expertise in a particular field qualify him or her to direct the work of a team. This implies a certain level of experience and understanding in that particular field.
Leaders, on the other hand, can emerge among people with any level of technical knowledge and skill. Their defining quality is their ability to inspire, motivate, and guide others, and to set forth an easily understandable vision of what success looks like.
Complementary skill sets
The distinction between managers and leaders becomes particularly noticeable when highly competent managers show themselves to be less-than-inspiring as leaders, or when inspirational and even transformational leaders lack the organizational skills to effectively run a day-to-day operation.
On the other hand, many people who are not officially in management positions step up to lead and inspire their coworkers. Many leaders develop the nuts-and-bolts experience and expertise they need to become skilled managers.
Most organizations thrive when they bring on talented people who are excellent managers, as well as people who are strong leaders. This is especially true when an organization is fortunate enough to hire people who excel in both roles.
Leaders drive an organization’s mission and vision forward, motivating their teams to do their best work. Managers carry out policy directives and oversee the effective administration of procedures and projects in order to turn mission and vision into reality.
The big picture vs. the fine details
Another way to think about the relationship between the two roles is the idea that leaders set the tone and sense of purpose in an organization, and managers follow the vision set forth by leadership.
Leaders primarily focus on building ideas, whereas managers concentrate on executing the plans based on those ideas. Leaders inspire others, and managers organize and direct the work of others toward successful conclusions. Leaders set the tone for an organization’s culture; managers endorse and promote that culture. Leaders consistently keep their sights trained on the future, while managers devote most of their energy to making things happen in the present.
Managers – the glue that holds things together
Here is where managers play a central role as translators of vision to reality: close to three-fourths of employees responding to a recent survey reported feeling that their organization’s leaders do not devote enough time and effort to communicating their strategies and objectives. Some 80 percent stated that they wanted to learn more from their bosses about how their organization is doing.
One job of a manager is to ensure that employees stay aligned with the organization’s basic set of values, as well as its goals. This means that a significant portion of a manager’s time is spent explaining, clarifying, and facilitating communication from leadership to employees, and vice versa.
Seven transitional challenges for managers
One of the most challenging transitions in business is the move from manager to leader. The scope and complexity of the work facing a new leader of a large organization can be overwhelming.
Career expert Michael D. Watkins has identified seven groundbreaking changes that front-line managers confront as they become leaders of multifaceted, large enterprises. They transition from specialists to generalists, meaning that instead of falling back on the comfort zone of their particular specialty, they need to take the broad view and give others room to handle many of the details.
They also move from being data analysts to learning how to weave together information from numerous disciplines or fields of knowledge. In this view, “bricklayers” become “architects” who can master analytical systems thinking. Problem solvers transform into agenda-setters. Implementers of tactics turn into strategists. Front-line “soldiers” intent on breaking records or scoring wins on behalf of their own units become diplomats who must engage with a range of stakeholders.
In addition to all this, new leaders must also learn how to step out from the wings and stand center stage in the glare of the spotlight.
Leaders as change agents
Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, an expert on leadership and change, once defined the work of leadership as the “creation of positive, non-incremental change.” This includes the establishment of a strategy to direct the rollout of that change, as well as the “empowerment of people” who will carry the vision forward no matter what challenges they face. Kotter’s definition of leadership also encompasses the creation of a “coalition” of people who develop the momentum to keep things moving forward.
And, as other scholars on the subject have offered, leadership is all about drawing up the roadmap that others will follow. A leader’s main function is to galvanize others so that they internalize a mission and execute the individual and group tasks essential to realizing it.