The Difference between Management and Leadership

(5-minute read)

In American business culture, the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably. Although there is some overlap between these two concepts, they are not precisely the same thing. Often, confusion between leadership and management results in negative consequences, particularly for managers who assume that they are leading.

The current issue of the Nashville Business Journal showcases Nashville’s Most Admired CEOs, some two dozen of the city’s most prominent leaders in various industries. All of them were interviewed for this feature, and each was asked a general bank of questions, one of which was: “What college course do you feel best prepares people to be a CEO?”

There were a few people who mentioned courses in Finance, Strategic Planning, and the like, but the majority pointed to classes such as Psychology 101, Emotional Intelligence, or Human Resources. In essence, they all were pointing to the necessity of understanding and reacting skillfully to other people as the most profound preparation for leading at the executive level.

It is true that dealing with people is the overlap between management and leadership, but it’s the way the people-dealing is done that determines which camp you’re in. The difference, put simply, is that leaders have followers; managers have people who work for them.  This naturally leads to the question, WHY do people follow leaders?  And why would someone specifically follow ME?

In pursuit of answers to those questions, we need to define a couple of things. First, we define management as “the accomplishment of pre-determined objectives through others.” It’s the classic set up: employer says jump; employee asks how high.

Leadership, on the other hand, is “the art and science of getting other people to WILLINGLY do what you want them to do.” Leadership is a much more nuanced case of the leader saying, “This organization is going to jump to get where we want to go. Do you want to jump with us?” and the employee says “yes, I want to jump, too!” And as we have discussed in previous posts, leadership is not for everyone.

In our own careers, as is true in the case of most people we’ve coached (and we dare say the vast majority of the people reading this post), we’ve known people who were merely labeled as leaders or who were thrust into the leadership role through “The Peter Principle.” Popularized in the 1960s by Dr. Lawrence Peter’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek book of the same name, The Peter Principle comes into play when, in hierarchical organizations, sooner or later people get promoted into their level of incompetence. They have no leadership skills, and by extension, no followers. They typically only have leverage to get things done through a hierarchical power “bank account,” which comes at a cost of efficiency and effectiveness because the people who work for them do the bare minimum to keep their jobs and paychecks.

People such as these are not well-liked, and aren’t willingly followed by anyone. They’re managers.  Again, most of us have worked for (or known) these “leaders,” members of the so-called “leadership team,” for whom we wouldn’t cross the street to spit on them if they were on fire!

By now you could be wondering, which one am I, a leader or a manager? If you are, honestly answer this question: why should someone follow you up that metaphorical hill into the hailstorm of gunfire?

The only viable answer, it turns out, is people follow you if they perceive that you and your company/organization/department’s direction, goals, strategies and values are congruent with their own; and they will ultimately help you move in the direction you want to go if it simultaneously helps them go where they personally want to go. And as we outlined in The Trust Bank Account, most people’s assessment of that is directly correlated with their level of trust in you.

Too often, people think that being promoted to executive is the ultimate advancement in recognition of a person’s technical skills and expertise. In fact, it is not. Ascending to the management level actually requires a shift to a totally different set of skills—people skills, not technical skills. The technical skills that help executives climb the first half of the corporate ladder become the secondary skill set at the point most of their responsibilities are discharged by people working FOR them. It’s an entirely different focus, for which the technical background laid an important foundation, but is no longer the primary consideration.

Sadly, this jump is one that makes the difference in many people’s careers. For those who are unable to let go of the details, who cannot delegate the technical aspects of the work, it can mark the apex of their careers. This can be difficult for a person to accept if he or she has been rewarded and promoted repeatedly for technical proficiency. They worked hard to develop this expertise, and they may resent the idea of having to build a whole new skillset in an area they may deem less important or less interesting. Though unfortunate, it does happen. But it does not have to be this way.

For This Week: If in reading this, you find yourself to be a “manager” when you, in fact, seek to lead, all is not lost. Thousands of people make the transition from technician to executive every year; those skills can be learned and they can become the basis of a new expertise for you. Call us—we’re happy to help you become the 21st Century Leader you want to be.