Management vs Leadership: Is There Really a Difference?

Before the pandemic and the growing millennial and Gen Z workforce, employees wanted and needed management. Post-pandemic, a lot has changed. People today don’t want to be managed. They want leadership – authentic, purpose-driven, visionary, and relationship-building leadership. Though the terms are used interchangeably, there are significant differences between management and leadership. Managing people worked well once, but like the workforce has evolved, so must leadership skills to meet employee and organizational needs. While managers and leaders have different perspectives, management, and leadership do intersect because some skills are essential to employee engagement to achieve present or future goals. 

Defining Management vs. Leadership

The renowned business consultant John Kotter addressed the difference between management and leadership in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice. His theory, presented in 2007, was that these two functions are quite different. 

What is Management? 

Management is a function that focuses on producing order and consistency and seeks stability in the present to achieve work goals. There are three basic functions of management. 

  • Planning and budgeting – establishing goals, agendas, and timetables and allocating resources
  • Controlling and problem solving – developing incentives, generating creative solutions, and taking corrective actions
  • Organizing and staffing – providing structure, establishing rules and procedures, and hiring and placing people

Management is concerned with ensuring pre-planned tasks are successfully carried out to meet pre-determined objectives. Management basically involves telling people what to do. The manager or supervisor who manages rather than leads: 

  • Focuses on meeting established goals
  • Uses past performance as the primary determinant of whether to hire, develop, or promote an employee
  • Uses control to achieve objectives
  • Focuses on day-to-day operations to ensure they are performed as instructed and expected, thus is not thinking ahead about opportunities
  • Focuses on adhering to organizational processes, strategies, budgets, etc.
  • Coordinates people
  • Accepts and maintains the status quo rather than change
  • Asks how and when rather than questioning what and why

It’s easy to see that some management is necessary, but it doesn’t involve looking ahead for opportunities, innovating, increasing employee engagement, and team building. The focus on producing work within parameters is not oriented toward employee engagement. Managers who are not leaders find their power and authority in the control of subordinates. 

What is Leadership?

Kotter defined leadership as focusing on producing change and movement. The three functions of leadership are the following. 

  • Establishing direction – create a vision, set strategies, and develop clarity of the big picture
  • Motivating and inspiring – empower subordinates, inspire and energize, and satisfy unmet needs
  • Aligning people – communicate goals, build teams and coalitions, and seek commitment

Leadership is based on a vision of change through opportunities, whereas management vision is based on reaching pre-determined goals and objectives. Leadership has a broad vision that is open to changes to the status quo and considers how engaging the team members can help the organization achieve more. Leadership considers the following. 

  • How to engage and motivate employees to do their best work
  • Engaging employees in a vision of reaching future shared goals
  • Aligning employees with the organization’s mission and goals
  • Influencing employees to achieve high performance by helping them envision their wider role and future growth opportunities
  • Willing to question the status quo and innovate
  • Helps the team learn from mistakes and obstacles
  • Supports continuous learning
  • Questions what and why before accepting solutions

Leaders have followers, and the employees follow because the leadership inspires and motivates them. Leaders are focused on people. 

management vs leadership

Where Management and Leadership Intersect

Sometimes, leaders must be managers, so the two roles intersect. Harvard Business School Professors Nancy Koehn and Joe fuller shared their perspectives at an HBS conference on leadership and management and how they intersect. 

Professor Fuller quotes John Kotter on his definition of the “activity of leadership.” She said Kotter wrote that leadership “is the creation of positive, non-incremental change, including the creation of a vision to guide that change—a strategy—the empowerment of people to make the vision happen despite obstacles, and the creation of a coalition of energy and momentum that can move that change forward.” Leadership is defined by energizing words. 

Professor Fuller said, “Management is getting the confused, misguided, unmotivated, and misdirected to accomplish a common purpose on a regular, recurring basis. I think the ultimate intersection between leadership and management is an appreciation for what motivates and causes individuals to behave the way they do, and the ability to draw out the best of them with a purpose in mind.”

Both managers and leaders want to motivate employees to behave productively and exert their best effort. The difference is what the manager and leader define as the purpose of the motivation and work. Managers are motivating employees to meet current organizational goals. The HBS Dean Nitin Nohria said management is “the process of working with others to ensure the effective execution of a chosen set of goals. Leadership is about developing what the goals should be. It’s more about driving change.” 

Dwight D. Eisenhower captured the intersection of management and leadership when he said, “The essence of leadership is to get others to do something because they think you want it done and because they know it is worthwhile doing.” Employees of managers complete work because the manager instructed them to do it, but they don’t necessarily understand their role or the bigger purpose of their work. Employees working with leaders understand their role in organizational success.

Employee Engagement Depends on Leadership

The last few years have seen significant changes in the workforce. They began before the pandemic as Millennials, and Gen Zers became a larger percentage of the workforce. Younger employees have different attitudes about the purpose of employment. While baby boomers and Gen X accepted being managed, millennials and Gen Z expect leadership focused on people. The younger generations don’t simply take directions and settle for: being told what work goals are, periodic performance reviews, lack of participation in team decision-making, no feedback system or lack of employee voice, and poor employee training systems. They want to have a say about their work schedules and location and have the confidence that they are valued as the people who make the organization successful.

In this modern business environment, employee engagement practices must change, which takes modern leadership rather than management. Lynda Gratton is the Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School and founder of HSM Advisory, which focuses on the future of work. She discusses the immense changes in workplace practices and norms occurring, and executives are only beginning to understand fully. This is a good example of why leadership is more effective than management.

Businesses, per Gratton, are stuck between changing the old ways of working and finding clarity in the new ways. The transformation taking place right now is significant and historical and will transform work and the relationship between employees and employers forever. Gratton’s discussion focuses on hybrid work, but she provides a good example of how leadership is needed for organizations to adapt.

Gratton talks about a study of six successful organizations with hybrid workforces, which University College London’s Jen Rhymer surveyed to identify success factors. “Among them were commonly understood norms for engagement and information sharing; an emphasis on short, iterative project cycles (two to four weeks); regular organization-wide retreats (every six to 12 months); and up-to-date company histories and knowledge repositories.” Focusing on individuals is not enough, per Gratton. People engagement and employee relationships are important because when they aren’t good, the new working structures are strained.

A survey by PwC found that leaders today must fill two roles as great visionaries and operators. This is how the intersection comes into play. There are complex expectations for leadership roles that include the following. 

  • Strategic executor – balances bold ideas with practical capabilities to realize visions.
  • Tech-savvy humanist – drives technology enhancements for future success while remembering organizations are run by people and for people.
  • High-integrity politician – navigates organizational dynamics to make things happen while remaining principled.
  • Humble hero – acts with confidence in an uncertain business environment but is willing to admit mistakes.
  • Globally minded localist – leads in a world that is both global and localized.
  • Traditioned innovator – uses the past to help drive organizational success but also creates a forward-focused culture that allows for innovation, failure, learning, and growth.

In these six expectations are found numerous intersections. Managers and leaders must be practical, guide people in their roles, work with organizational dynamics, work within a global and local business environment, and use past organizational results to identify what succeeded. However, leaders are forward-thinking at the same time that they are managing people and processes. Leadership means having a broader view than simply meeting goals and putting people at the center of everything. They challenge conventional ideas, collaborate, and support teamwork. 

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What is Authentic and Purpose-Driven Leadership? 

Dr. Brian Chupp at Purdue University has over 20 years of HR experience. He believes management and leadership are “complementary and symbiotic concepts.” It’s more about perspective than different roles. Managers and leaders have different perspectives. For example, both communicate, but managers communicate to assign tasks, problem-solve, and set performance goals. Leaders communicate to inspire, motivate, and set direction. Managers hire people to fill positions and arrange them to get a job done. Leaders decide what human capital is needed for future business needs and align people with organizational goals. Dr. Chupp believes the gap in leadership skills is due to organizations focusing the early training of supervisors on management tasks and not leadership skills. 

The IRI Consultants’ LEAD Academy was developed to help close leadership gaps and to help organizational leaders understand their strengths and how to use them to support organizational goals and growth. The workshops address the skills managers need to develop to become leaders, like leading change, moving from peer to manager to leader, coaching employees to higher performance, building teams, and leading through change.   

A leader is a role model and a point of strength for employees. The leadership skills strong leaders need are creativity, motivation, problem-solving, willingness to take risks, and the ability to mentor employees. It’s leaders who shape the organization’s culture and drive change. Change management could also be called change leadership, depending on the role. Managers work in the present, support the culture, and will strive to execute the goals set by leaders. Leadership: 

  • Ensures the organization’s goals are communicated to employees
  • Connects employees to a common purpose by sharing how the company is doing
  • Effectively communicates why change is necessary to get employees on board
  • Builds trust in the workplace
  • Empowers employees
  • Gives employees work autonomy through delegation  
  • Gives employees a strong voice for sharing ideas and feedback
  • Strives to develop positive employee relations
  • Inspires through authenticity
  • Shapes the culture through role modeling, upholding company values, demonstrating personal values, and authentically communicates
  • Is committed, flexible, and positive

Leadership builds strong employee engagement, positive employee relations, and positive relationships. A true leader can only successfully fulfill the role by being authentic and purpose-driven. Authenticity means the person always remains true to personal values, acts ethically, is transparent, and openly shares information with others. Leadership requires excellent listening skills, emotional intelligence, and a willingness to accept accountability. Purpose-driven leadership places emphasis on personal values and caring about people, society, and the organization. Leaders consistently stay connected with employees and are inclusive to make better decisions. They are also continuous learners.

Balancing Management and Leadership

Your organization needs managers and leaders, which is where the intersection of skills matters. Managers are crucial to ensuring deadlines are met, ensuring employees aren’t overloaded with work and are fairly rewarded for performance, solving technical problems, and supporting employees striving to meet assigned goals. Leaders keep employees engaged and moving ahead even while performing manager responsibilities. Sometimes, it’s a balancing act, but skilled leadership never loses sight of the vision.

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