Leadership vs. Management: Closing the great divide

Although it might seem like it doesn’t make much of a difference, what we call the people at the top of the organisational hierarchy can have significant implications.

The quickening rate of change in modern business means there is now a plethora of titles that executives can hold these days, with more appellations constantly being devised. However, there are two that have stood the test of time and continue to be widely used in the workplace today: leader and manager.

Are these two essentially the same thing? Or is it worth digging into the semantics, looking at the different nuances of each and what they mean for modern executive development?

In reality, there are key differences between the two concepts – but they may be of equal importance for today’s executives.

The Leader

Literature over the years has tended to paint leaders as a charismatic figure at the head of the organisation, engaging, inspiring and motivating employees to succeed. A lot of focus has been placed on how the best leaders transcend their technical skills and expertise and hold the innate ability to stir up their workers and get the best out of them.

These attributes are, of course, essential – the Center for Creative Leadership’s ‘What Makes a Leader Effective?’ study, for example, found that respondents in the US ranked being charismatic as the top quality for effective leadership. This placed it ahead of other factors such as being team-oriented, participative and humane-oriented.

In summary, a business’s leader appeals to its higher ideals and vision and aims to excite these within employees. The ‘Leadership versus Management: A Key Distinction – At Least in Theory’ paper by Sam Houston State University’s Fred C. Lunenburg explains it perfectly. While a manager “executes plans, improves the present and sees the trees”, a leader “articulates a vision, creates the future and sees the forest”.

While this comparison highlights the importance and value of a leader, it also indicates that strong management skills are also crucial – and the modern leader needs to be a great manager as well.

The Manager

So if the leader is in charge of guiding the organisation through its groundbreaking new steps, what does the manager do? An equally important role, according to Lunenburg – while a leader creates change, he says, the manager is responsible for managing that change.

Alan Murray’s Wall Street Journal Guide to Management, quoting leadership expert Warren Bennis, puts it another way – the leader develops, while the manager maintains. In addition, Bennis reiterates the different but equally vital perspectives the two take: the leader watches the horizon, while the manager has their eye on the bottom line.

In business, managing the day-to-day short term is just as important as taking a long-term view into the future, a notion that is reinforced by the branches of leadership and management – and how they complement each other.

Putting two and two together

As these analyses suggest, leadership and management can seem like polar opposites that are difficult to reconcile. However, in order to truly succeed in the modern business world, executives should focus on how they can leverage both their leadership and management capabilities, making them work for each other for the good of the organisation.