Difference between Management and LeadershipUpdated: Oct 10, 2016
“Management” and “leadership” are concepts about which volumes of business literature have been written, but for which clear definitions are not often provided. And when they are provided, the chances are very good that there will be little distinction between the two. All this confusion is perhaps why the subject is a staple of business and management courses; every student, at some point, will almost certainly be asked to discuss the difference between management and leadership, because it is a function of good professorial management and leadership to encourage students to think about questions “with no right answer”.
What ‘experts’ say about management & leadership
Here are two definitions, one of leadership and one of management, which are fairly representative of ideas that can be found in management literature:
Leadership: “...an activity or set of attributes which is capable of producing a change and releasing innovation and development.” (M. Alvesson & S. Sveningsson, “Managers Doing Leadership: The Extra-Ordinarization of the Mundane”, Human Relations, vol. 56, no.12, 2003.)
Management: “...the ability to identify, develop, and support people so that their individual contributions and contributions as a group promote organizational prosperity.” (G. Pearson & M. Parker, “Management or Organizing? A Dialogue”, Business and Society Review, vol. 113, no.1, 2008.)
See the difference? No? That’s because there isn’t one, really. Both definitions, albeit in slightly different ways, express the idea of “encouraging the organization to perform at its best”. This is actually the view of leadership held by classical management theory expressed in the work of scholars such as Henri Fayol and Frederick Taylor, who viewed leadership as a normal component or consequence of the routine activity of management. In the classical view, the manager is seen as a sort of “conductor” or “enabler”, a necessary role to efficiently coordinate and direct the various activities of the firm, but more importantly, a role that can be learned; “leadership,” then, in the classical sense is not really a description of certain qualities as much as it is a description of one’s place in an organizational hierarchy.
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Leaders are special, aren’t’ they?
The rather pedestrian view of leadership in classical management theory is hardly inspiring, at least to people who already are (or consider themselves to be) “leaders” rather than mere “managers”, as well as to scholars who would really like there to be something special about leadership. They find it, or so it seems at first, in the trait theory of leadership, which asserts that a leader has certain intangible qualities, either learned or natural gifts, that set him apart from non-leaders.
Management theory literature written in the last generation or two reflects the application of trait theory: Leaders are described as “visionary,” “passionate,” “creative,” “inspiring,” “innovative,” “courageous,” and other mildly heroic-sounding things. Ordinary managers, by contrast, are considered “rational,” “analytical,” “structured,” “persistent,” and “tough-minded.” Good leaders inspire creativity and are motivators; good managers inspire competence and discipline. That might be a good outline for a first- or second-year management course essay on the subject, but it’s a false dichotomy; it is very unlikely, people being as complicated as they are, that any particular individual in a position of authority over others in an organization has only the qualities of a leader or only those of a manager. People can be – and usually are – both creative and rational, or innovative and persistent, or visionary and structured at the same time.
Leadership as a matter of perception
So far it appears that the difference between leadership and management is a wholly contrived one, and we could perhaps dismiss the problem with that except for one troubling little fact: in real-life organizations, there are clearly people who are more effective in positions of authority than others – who are actually better leaders than other people in exactly the same clearly-defined organizational roles.
Alvesson and Sveningsson suggest that what distinguishes an actual leader from one who is simply an effective manager may just be a matter of perception.
The position of authority is perceived – by both the person having it and by his subordinates – as conferring some special qualities on the leader so that even very ordinary activities are considered somehow special. For example, small talk among coworkers is just small talk; small talk between the “leader” and “follower”, however, is “inspiring” or “motivating”. The “leadership perception” can even be described as a simple formula: “(1) A mundane act carried out by (2) a manager and (3) labeled leadership means (4) an expectation of something significant, even ‘magical’ being accomplished.” (Alvesson & Sveningsson, “Managers Doing Leadership: The Extra-Ordinarization of the Mundane”, p. 1455)
The implication, of course, is that “leadership” is a phantom notion; the basic ideas of a classical management theory are hard to dismiss, after all. The concept of “leadership as a product of perception” is a rather cynical one, and basically asserts that while a leader and a manager are substantially the same things, a practical difference can be contrived if the manager has confidence in his role as a “leader,” and can convince his team of it as well. Is this the “right answer” to the question, “What is the difference between leadership and management?” Perhaps, and perhaps not. The real value of the answer, though, is not really in its potential use in semantic exercises, but in the approach to management, one can take in his or her own career. Recognizing and adapting the “habits of leadership” – key among them, understanding how the role is perceived and what is expected of it from those who are led – can elevate one from a competent manager to an extraordinary leader.
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Image source: “Theory-Go-Round” by Don Moyer, Harvard Business Review, February 2008.
Read more about leadership and management:
- Bryan, L. “Dynamic Management: Better Decisions in Uncertain Times”. McKinsey Quarterly, December 2009.
- Kirkpatrick, S.A., and Locke, E.A. “Leadership: Do Traits Matter?” Academy of Management Executive, vol. 5, no. 2, 1991.
- Grönroos, C. “From Scientific Management to Service Management”. International Journal of Service Industry Management, vol. 5, no. 1, 1994.
- Dvir, T., Eden, D., Avolio, B.J., and Shamir, B. “Impact of Transformational Leadership on Follower Development and Performance: A Field Experiment”. The Academy of Management Journal, vol. 45, no. 4, 2002.