Leadership versus Management

Leader vs Manager

This article describes the difference between leadership and management in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of these powerful management principles.


Organizations sometimes confuse and conflate Leadership versus Management, and when this occurs the definitions tend to blur and can result in both misunderstanding of roles and a deleterious cross-purpose impact. My view is that Leaders should lead and Managers should manage, and these two disciplines are very different in both form and function.

While Peter Drucker says that “the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers”, USC’s Leadership professor Warren Bennis eloquently reminds us that “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”.

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Lastly, Kevin Kruse of Forbes says that “Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power”. So armed with these definitions of leadership, how does Management differ?

Vision of Drucker and Kotter

Peter Drucker, in his masterful work entitled “Management: tasks, Responsibilities and Practices” says that there are five basic operations; setting objectives, organizing, motivating, measuring and development (self and staff).

So the iterative process begins with Leaders defining the mission/vision. Max Du Pree who ran Herman Miller from 1980 to 1987 eloquently reminds us that, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.

That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” Dr. John Kotter from Harvard helps to discern the differences between management and leadership by explaining that, “Management is a set of processes that keep an organization functioning, they make it hit this quarter’s numbers”.

Leadership is very different. It is about aligning people to the vision that means buy-in and communication, motivation and inspiration.

Difference between leadership and management

While the disciplines of Leadership and Management certainly contain a natural overlap in the skills needed to perform their respective functions, there are however clearly discernible attributes unique to each skill. Simply put, Leaders Lead and Manager manage.

Abraham Zaleznick writing in the Harvard Business Review (2004) defines the differences this way; “The difference between managers and leaders lies in the conceptions they hold, deep in their psyches, of chaos and order”.

Managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully.

In order to succeed, organizations need both managers and leaders, but merging their respective roles may result in the unintended consequence of the application of the ‘Peter Principle’. Success in a Managerial role, absent Leadership training and development, might not result in success of the ‘intended’ role.

The seven seismic shifts

Michael Watkins writing in the HBR (2012) says that Managers can become leaders but have to go through a process of metamorphosis of what he calls the ‘seven seismic shifts’. They must learn to move from;

  1. Specialist to generalist;
  2. Analyst to integrator;
  3. Tactician to strategist;
  4. Bricklayer to architect;
  5. Problem solver to agenda setter;
  6. Warrior to diplomat;
  7. Supporting cast member to lead role.

Highly successful managers may trip when they shift from leading a ‘function’ to leading an ‘enterprise’ For many of them this may be the first time taking they are forced to accept responsibility for a P&L and oversight of staff across multiple corporate functions.

Personal vision

My advice to young emerging companies is to ‘tread lightly’ before transitioning a good ‘manager’ into a leadership role. Buy multiple copies of Max Du Pree’s book “Leadership is an Art” and make it required reading for both you and the person you are moving into a leadership role.

There is a wonderful Dutch quote that says, “we get too soon old and too late smart”. The remedy for this malady is to know that Leadership is Life-Long-Learning. Leaders are not born, they evolve over a lifetime of learning. My dear friend Doug Smollan (Chairman of the Board of the Smollan Group) says, “If you are green you are growing, if you are ripe you are rotting”.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? What is in your opinion the difference (and similarities) between leadership and management? How do you see this difference towards the young emerging companies?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t. Random House.
  2. Tjan, A. K., Harrington, R. J., & Hsieh, T. Y. (2012). Heart, smarts, guts, and luck: what it takes to be an entrepreneur and build a great business.. Harvard Business Press.
  3. DePree, M. (2011). Leadership is an art. Crown Business.
  4. Ferrazzi, K., & Raz, T. (2011). Never eat alone. GagasMedia.

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Errol Gerson
Article by:

Errol Gerson

Errol Gerson teaches Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the world renowned Art Center College of Design, and has taught for over 44 years to well over 6,000 students. He is a featured speaker at Colleges and Universities, Conferences and Symposiums and consults with companies on Strategic Management and Marketing Planning. He is writing a book entitled "Everything you need to know in life was taught to you by your grandmother" and is a collection of aphorisms collected from all over the world. He lives in Los Angeles, California.


5 responses to “Leadership versus Management”

  1. Sabina Irimie says:

    An exploration interest in a classic dilemma. Congratulations!

  2. Bedilu Assefa says:

    The article helps to clear the difference,specially for those who interchangeably use the concepts.

  3. balaji yalagala says:

    for a leadership it automatically boost their work(i.e i can do it )
    but for a management it takes sometime to work upon that……..

  4. Eliette Mendes says:

    A very well written article. The problem is that when one is manager-oriented face a turmoil to evolve into a leader.

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