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There is a clear difference between management and leadership, but the question is what those differences are and how they are manifested. If there were one single, clear way to define both management and leadership, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, for every organization or leadership consultant or management specialist, there is a different definition. One thing is clear in the leadership vs management issue, though: strong leadership and strong management are necessary for excellent performance.

John Kotter, noted Harvard business professor and consultant, is a leading authority on the subject of management vs. leadership, and he characterizes the differences this way:

  • Management is a systematic way of making people and technology work proficiently.
  • Leadership is creating those systems and looking for opportunities to improve.

Management is the concrete, perhaps more left-brain action of planning, organizing, and efficiency, while leadership is the abstract creation of vision and strategy.

The Wall Street Journal quotes leadership guru Warren Bennis characterizing management vs leadership as, essentially, the manager maintains while the leader develops. Peter Drucker goes one step further to say that management is almost irrelevant, as any good manager in a knowledge economy is actually in reality exhibiting leadership—“One does not manage people…the task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

In my research on the debate between management vs leadership, it seems like a few ideas continue to percolate. Leadership is the action of thinking differently and finding out how things can be done (managed) better. Management is implementation and maintenance to ensure things are getting done well, but leadership is inspiring that implementation.

Through our work, I’ve seen a lot of managers by job title who exhibited clear signs of leadership, both in their interactions with their teams and direct reports and in their approach to work. It really got me thinking that what we shouldn’t focus on is defining management vs leadership, but rather how people can exhibit the characteristics of strong managers and strong leaders.

It really comes down to a total-brain approach to doing one’s work and dealing with people. You need the leadership-oriented Conceptual element of long-range vision, but you also need the managerial drive to get things done right and focus on how things are structured. You need an Analytical, leadership-driven focus to ask questions like “What? Why?,” but the concrete Socially focused approach to work with people to say “How can this be done? Who will do it?.”

Finally, there’s of course a behavioral component of leadership and management that, ultimately, I think stems from understanding how people behave and modifying one’s approach to match positive behavior and fix negative behavior.

Really, if I had to pick a system to define management vs. leadership, I’d go with Drucker’s take that in today’s complex, global world, we are all leaders, in that we all are compelled to increase our own productivity and that of others by revealing and utilizing strengths in the way we work.

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