George Ambler

Helping Leaders Grow

two benches

Leaders vs Managers Are They Really Different?

The debate between leadership and management has been raging for a number of decades! I think that the distinction between management a leadership is useful one, in that it helps us gain a better understanding of role of the leader and therefore causes us to reflect on our own behaviour and to ask ourselves “Are we really leading?” So what are the differences between managers and leaders?

“There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial” – Warren Bennis

I really admire the work of Warren Bennis, in one of his books, “On Becoming a Leader” he describes his view of the differences between managers and leaders as follows:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager accepts reality; the leader investigates it.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his or her eye on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This is a great list and it always causes me to pause a reflect on my own behaviour and ask “Where am I spending most of my time? Doing the left hand tasks or doing the right hand tasks?

Another influential thinker on the distinction between management and leadership has been John Kotter, author of “John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do” in this book John Kotter makes the following observations:

  • “Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action… Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”
  • “Most U.S. corporations today are overmanaged and underled.”
  • “Strong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse.”
  • “Management is about coping with complexity…. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic… Good management brings a degree of order and consistency….”
  • “Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change… More change always demands more leadership.”
  • “Companies manage complexity by planning and budgeting, by organizing and staffing, and by controlling and problem solving. By contrast, leading an organization to constructive change involves setting a direction (developing a vision of the future and strategies to achieve the vision), aligning people, and motivating and inspiring them to keep moving in the right direction.”

One important point that John Kotter makes is that:

Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action… Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”

The fact is that leadership and management are both important, they are two distinctive systems of action, both are necessary as each seek to do different things.

On this topic, Jim Estill posted this great quote on his blog, “CEO Blog – Time Leadership” citing a classic article from Harvard Business Review by Abraham Zaleznik in 1977 that discusses Leaders vs. Managers:

“The difference between managers and leaders, he wrote, lies in the conceptions they hold, deep in the psyches, of chaos and order. Managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly – sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully in this way, Zalenznik argued, business leaders have much more in common with artists, scientists and other creative thinkers than they do with managers. Organizations need both managers and leaders to succeed, but developing both requires a reduced focus on logic and strategic exercises in favour of an environment where creativity and imagination are permitted to flourish.”

In the end, we need to be good at leading first and managing second, the why and the what, then only, the how and the when!

Reflecting on your behaviour over the past month, ask yourself:

  • Where do you find yourself spending the majority of your time? Managing or leading?
  • Given that most organisations are “over managed and under led“, What two management tasks can delegate this week?
  • What two leadership behaviour do you need to focus on and improve this week?


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  1. Daniel Buhr

    Thank you, George, you make a lot of good points on this topic. The most important distinction between leadership and management is that you do not need to be a manager to be a leader, and being a manager does not automatically make you a leader. In this context all these other distinctions become even more powerful.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Yes 100%. Often we get lost in the debate about which role is better or that management adds little value, etc. The value of the distinction in the role is in understanding the purpose of each role and consciously deciding what role is appropriate in a given situation.

  3. I think you can be a leader without being a manager. Being a manager is not conditional to being a leader. Looking at sports: sometimes the captain of a team is not the leader of the team. Nonetheless, a leader needs to have (formal) influence and resources, so most often it is a manager.

  4. For decades, there has been a constant debate on leaders versus a managers. You have made strong points here, but I tend to believe that these two roles should not be alienated from the other because they are complementary. A manager although more focused on accomplishing tasks, must also be a leader such that subordinates follow because they believe in what they do and not just merely executing orders. Leaders on one whand, must also have manager experiences, because how could he steer the company the direction of success if he is not aware of the company’s operations and how the staff work together to accomplish goals. This is just my piece of opinion.

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