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The difference between management and leadership has been a subject of debate within the business and academic community for more than fifty years. Leaders lead. Managers manage. This simplistic definition — often paraded around by laymen — ignores the significant overlap between the two roles. Managers, after all, are also leaders, and leaders also managers.

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So how do you really define the difference between management and leadership?

Turning to etymology is of little help. ‘Manage’ comes from Italian maneggiare, which means to handle or lead a horse. ‘Lead’ comes from the Old English lædan, which means to guide or carry through. Essentially, their etymological and lexical meanings are largely the same.

The only way to really differentiate between leadership and management then is to define the two roles in the context of their role within a business, their psyches, and what they bring to an organization, as we will see below.

Rethinking Management

In a landmark paper published in 1977 titled ‘Managers and Leaders: Are They Different’, Abraham Zaleznik, a former professor at Harvard Business School, argued that the traditional conception of management – creating and following processes meant to maximize efficiency and delegate authority – disregarded critical aspects of leadership, including vision, inspiration and passion. Leaders, Zaleznik argued, are more like artists than managers. While managers concern themselves with creating structures and order, leaders embrace chaos and throw themselves into the deep end.

As an example, consider the late Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple.

Steve Jobs was a polarizing figure, a visionary who lead Apple from the depths of bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world. Although he was crowned the ‘CEO of the Decade’, Jobs’ primary role within Apple was to be a leader, not a manager. He was the consummate artist-capitalist, leading his flock with visionary zeal – a role that has now been taken over by Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice-President of Design.

The day to day running of Apple was handled by a team of expert managers lead by Tim Cook. Tim’s role prior to becoming the CEO was Chief of Operations. It was Cook’s laser sharp focus on operations that enabled Apple to fine tune its supply chain and negotiate profitable margins from vendors. Apple owes its success as much to Jobs and his iconic product vision, as to Cook and his operations and strategic innovations.

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Leaders vs. Managers: A Brief Rundown

Warren Bennis, one of the pioneers of Leadership studies, argues in his 1989 book “On Becoming a Leader”, that the key difference between managers and leaders is their attitude to risk and innovation.

Managers, he argues, administer. They focus on systems and processes, on maintaining order through formal structure. Leaders, on the other hand, innovate. They ask ‘why’, not ‘how’. While managers may succumb to the pressures of shareholders and Wall Street, leaders keep a firm eye on innovation, as Jack Welch teaches in Welch Way, his course on leadership skills.

Based on this premise, the key characteristics of leaders and managers can be categorized as follows:



Breaking the Leadership-Management Divide

Leadership and management are complementary, not clashing, as many like to believe. The above qualities are not watertight categories; some leaders have attributes of managers, some managers of leaders. Being effective requires leadership traits as well as management skills.

Rather than products or intellectual property, the strength of the modern organization is its human resources. This is particularly true for tech heavy industries where the limited talent tends to galvanize around natural leaders. Dealing with such workers requires managers to possess an intrinsic knowledge of people and embody leadership traits (hence the current emphasis on leadership skills in business schools).

At the same time, the idea of the autocratic but charismatic leader is woefully antiquated. The data-driven modern organization depends on quantified knowledge to increase efficiency and productivity. In this context, leaders need the cold, hard precision of formal processes as much as they need a zeal for innovation and dealing with people. Hybridity – where leaders embody managerial traits and vice-versa – thus, is critical to organizational success in the 21st century. You can learn more secrets of leadership success by mastering these 21 leadership principles.

Leadership and management are as similar as they are different. Whether you are a startup founder, an experienced serial entrepreneur, a senior vice-president of a Fortune 500 company or an assistant manager of a small business, you need to adopt the qualities of a leader while still following proven managerial processes to become truly effective.

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Page Last Updated: February 2020

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