Where Leadership and Management Meet

Part 1 - The Leadership Myth

There is a lot of conversation on the topic of the difference between leadership and management particularly among those who study and/or teach either topic.  In the process it seems to me that a myth has been born - that leadership is better than management.


I want to thank Wayne Lux and Geoff Barbaro for calling my attention to this myth.  I truly appreciate and understand the sentiment behind their statements below.  There are good and valid arguments leading to these conclusions, but the conclusion itself, or at least the shorthand way we have started to express it, is what I want to debunk here.

Is someone really more valuable or more important to the success of any group or organization if they have strong leadership skills even if they can’t manage themselves “out of a paper bag”?

Here is what Wayne and Geoff said that had me start thinking about this:  Wayne Lux (@Gorpdc on twitter) responded with “You LEAD people and MANAGE things” to my question “What is your biggest challenge in managing people?”  Geoff (@Geoff_Barbaro) responded with “For most, I'd suggest it's not managing, but leading.  People thrive with leadership but stifle with management.

I think those two comments point to our dissatisfaction and disillusion with the lingering historic practices of management that come from the industrial age – an age of mechanization in which the role of people in a business really was a lot like that of a “cog in the wheel” of the production machine.

Unfortunately some people still manage that way: they treat people like machines and expect them to operate like one.  It’s all about getting the work done no matter what.  The boss says jump and the employee is supposed to say “how high?”.

These legacy managers think their job is to dictate and their employee’s job is to follow orders.  They believe their job is to keep tight control over things, and see micro-management as an act of responsibility.

This kind of management is what gives “management” a bad rap, especially in a world that needs, and even demands, a vastly different approach.

While there are some people who still like and want to be told exactly what to do, for many this kind of management is stifling and disempowering.  There is no doubt that management practices and the thinking that gives rise to those practices are in serious need of transformation.

But I don’t think the solution to all of our problems is to throw out “management” and replace it with “leadership”.  Leadership is not better than management.  They are simply distinct skill sets, both equally important to the success of any endeavor.

Here is a simple case for the importance of management.  Every successful business has effective systems.   It takes people to define, manage, and adapt those systems over time.  Among those systems is the human system, aka the organization.

Some systems lend themselves to more of a mechanical process.   The more mechanical the process, the less we need humans.  But we still need people to run them and dare I say “manage” the systems and the people who: envision and design how the systems will work, develop them, execute the tasks necessary to keep them working well, as well as adapt those systems as things change.

Do you manage people or things?  I believe you do manage people.  Machines never run themselves 100%.  Often parts of the process still require a human to execute properly.  Someone must direct the activities of those people, much like a conductor directs an orchestra to play a precisely written set of instructions called a musical score.  It is a dynamic process and the quality of the outcome can be attributed to both the skill of the “conductor” and the synergy of the relationship between the conductor and the “players”.

Effective management is essential to the success of any endeavor involving a group of people.  And so is effective leadership.  One is not better than the other.

So what is the real issue behind the myth?

We now expect people who manage us to also naturally lead us.  We can be ruthless in our judgment when managers don’t do both well.  Yet I don’t believe we have equipped enough people in management or leadership positions with the skills they need to win in today’s world.

What do you think?  Do we all need to be both effective leaders and managers to succeed in today’s world?   Or is there a place for those who are better at one or the other

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