Leadership v. Management: The Great Business Debate

Leadership versus Management


Included in the great debates of business today is the always interesting “Leadership v. Management” fight. Whenever I read an online business blog or leadership resource that tackles this seeming duality, I find it interesting that there seem to be only two ways this topic is presented…


  • Lists of overlapping similar and dissimilar characteristics and traits of managers and leaders. These debates often become semantically mind-numbing and too focused on job duties.




  • Textbook definitions of Leadership and Management.


The writers of both styles of these well-intentioned posts generally look at managers and leaders as mutually exclusive Or worse, they tend to ignore leadership that exists without a management job title.


What’s the difference between management and leadership? Let’s answer that question later.


The truth, as we all know it, is that not all managers are leaders. What we sometimes forget is that great managers can exist without being leaders, and great leaders can exist without official authority or responsibility over others.


I know some great managers who aren’t necessarily good leaders. These guys keep the trains running on time and make very few mistakes. They are not particularly innovative, motivational or even charming; but they are a vital part of the businesses or teams they manage. Whether the missing leadership quality is necessitated by job duty or personality, these managers can still help a company succeed without ever having to truly lead. Their world is fairly static and it operates via a strict schedule.


Of course, the argument against these managers who seem to tread water is that we should just replace them with true leaders. I disagree. Managers who manage, rather than manage and lead, can hold a large amount of company history in their heads, are generally satisfied with their current role (equaling less turnover), and they are usually paid much less than an up-and-coming leader. Virtually every business needs a few managers mixed in with their manager-leaders. The key is to keep the numbers small and to recognize those parts of your business where a manager is enough.

Management is a Function


Management is, of course, a function in the organization. By it’s very nature, it speaks to the “doing” required to keep a company running. Managers derive their responsibilities and power from their title. Management is black and white – duties are either accomplished or they are not. Management relies heavily on reports as a scorecard, and as a tool to reward or punish teams or individuals.


The definition of leadership, it seems, is more fluid. True leaders do not need a title to provide them the authority necessary to enact change. Leaders tackle issues with abandon and question “why not?” Reports are considered “business intelligence” and are tools that help leaders see the future and make appropriate course corrections.


Management and leadership are not dichotomous terms. They are not mutually-exclusive. It is not an either/or. In fact, the words shouldn’t even be compared to each other.  We all know great managers who aren’t leaders and great leaders who really can’t manage. Comparing management to leadership seems as silly to me as comparing an orange to an orangutan. Some similarities (they are both the same color), but they don’t belong in the same discussion.


Your organization needs managers and it needs leaders. Sometimes both qualities exist in a single person, and sometimes only one quality is present. Often, neither quality exists. In the famous words the late great Ted Knight uttered in Caddyshack, “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

Leaders versus Non-Leaders


The real question we should be asking is this: What’s the difference between leaders and non-leaders? This question has merit.


The distinction between leaders and non-leaders is often defined by the quality of their personal interactions, their vision and their ability to influence others to deliver their best to the organization. 


I’ve know hundreds of front-line employees who lead well. (Generally, businesses identify these folks early and either promote them or chase them from the organization.) Our guts tell us that we should hire only leaders, but the truth is that team dynamics, organizational mobility and other factors make it necessary and prudent to hire some non-leaders. The old cliché about too many chiefs and not enough Indians comes to mind, though the truth is that great leaders can and often do subordinate their leadership for the sake of their team’s or company’s goals and objectives. That said, I still like to have a few non-leaders around because they seem less frustrated with the mundane.


Execution is the key, and true leaders know this. “If the team can execute better without my opinion on this one, then I’ll keep my trap shut.” Leaders, more than non-leaders, understand the goals, they influence and live the vision, and they help companies grow. Leaders, however, do become discouraged when they are managed by non-leaders. Because they are leaders, they will try to manage up, though they will be quick to depart if it’s clear they cannot enact positive change in the organization.


So, what should you aspire to be? A leader, of course. If becoming a leader didn’t interest you, you would never have searched for leadership development resources like AskTheManager.com. The reason you asked the question “What’s the difference between management and leadership?” in the first place is because you wanted to improve either your leadership skills or the leadership skills of someone at your company – and recognizing the need to improve this skill set is the first step on the road of leadership development.