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Which is more important, leadership or management?

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Is it essential to label leaders and managers?

Good managers and proper management are essential in any organisation, and both managers and leaders are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment. One is not more important than the other.

Even though Leadership is accepted as crucial for businesses to be successful over time, there is no single definition. Academics, successful business leaders, many professional and retired sportspeople (players, managers or coaches) and retired armed forces personnel are increasingly likely to opine on the subject. A challenge with management theory is that each framework typically replaces others and does not build upon that which has come before.

A brief note of caution, as Ben Horowitz (The Hard Thing About Hard Things), says:

"Be aware that management books tend to be written by management consultants who study successful companies during their times of peace. As a result, the resulting books describe the methods of peacetime CEOs."

The reality is that leadership is context-specific. To be a truly effective leader, you have to be able to survive and thrive in war and peacetime situations.

I prefer a simple and concise definition of Leadership:

To lead is about being effective at motivating and influencing others.

This single sentence encapsulates:

  • Having a compelling vision or mission

  • Building and developing high-performance teams

  • Inspiring others and creating followership

  • Building and engendering trust

  • Getting results

Previously as the supervisor of ambitious professionals as well as a sought-after mentor, I was called upon to help managers move into leadership roles. Now, as an executive coach, it is a relatively common part of my work with my corporate clients. I coach successful and high potential professionals with the transition from being a manager to becoming a leader. Challenges such as how to step back and delegate effectively or set direction and "think", and not constantly "do" are genuine issues that executives need help to overcome so that they can be effective leaders.

What are the differences between leadership and management?

Below are three examples from notable leadership experts about the topic of Leaders versus Managers:

John Kotter - HBR, What Leaders Really Do (2003)

"Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in today's business environment."

Warren Bennis - On Becoming a Leader (1989)

Taken from a longer list of differences:

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates

  • The manager maintains while the leader develops

  • The manager does things right, and the leader does the right thing

Peter Drucker - Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999)

"With the rise of the knowledge worker: one does not "manage" people, the task is to lead people, and the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual."

These extracts are a small taste of the narrative delineating between the two over the years.

Bottom line, leadership and management must go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing.

What makes a good leader?

Any aspiring leader needs to be familiar with the comparison between managers and leaders and have a view on the subject. Early in the leadership journey and still developing a leadership mindset, being armed with information on the differences between managers and leaders will only help with your future career and personal development. There are core leadership characteristics and skills that have the most impact and not a long list of desirable traits or behaviours that can be a wish list of "things a leader should demonstrate". A psychologist friend of mine highlighted this point recently when he mentioned how happy he was not to be a leader as it is so exhausting as a leader must be an expert in so many areas. They must be:

  • Courageous & Vulnerable

  • Confident & Humble

  • Able to predict the future

  • Supportive and Challenging

  • A work and life balancer extraordinaire

  • Have an infinite mindset and be resource-conscious

  • A coach, friend, therapist

  • And know 100+ styles of leadership

While the list was intended as satire, it hit the mark provoking many comments on LinkedIn. Coaching can help to focus on the core elements which have the most impact over the short, medium and longer-term so that you develop your leadership mindset.

For leaders to be successful, it is increasingly accurate that, as Marshall Goldsmith said, "what got you here won't get you there". In today's business world, there is little chance that leaders can have the technical skills of those they lead. One of the first things aspiring leaders have to do is get comfortable with moving from being a technical expert to becoming more of a generalist and shift their primary focus from themselves to others.

Bruce Peltier (The Psychology of Executive Coaching) states that "if real leaders are rare, then real leaders with good management skills are even rarer". In my earlier career as an Investment Banking Chief Operating Officer (COO), it was the combination of the business head (the CEO) along with the COO which, when successful, achieved the good leader with good management skills. It is what made the COO role so appealing and why the best performing businesses of investment banks were often the ones where this combination was an outstanding success.

It is a gross oversimplification, but to help you get into the right mindset, I will summarise the various comparisons: managers embrace the status quo while leaders set goals and direction and hence challenge the status quo.

Managers embrace the status quo
Leaders challenge the status quo


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