Leadership vs Management

Image of intersecting axes with the word Manager in a circle with an arrow pointing up to the word Leader in a circle with a highlight around it.

Image of intersecting axes with the word Manager in a circle with an arrow pointing up to the word Leader in a circle with a highlight around it.

Leadership and management are two terms that get thrown around a lot and are often used fairly interchangeably. When a distinction is made, it's usually that really good managers are leaders, while not so good managers need to develop into leaders.

A lot of HR departments/coaches/consultants have a diagram somewhere that looks a bit like this -

I think this is wrong. I think the real picture looks like this instead -

Image of intersecting axes with the word Manager in a circle on the left and the word Leader in a circle on the right.

Image of intersecting axes with the word Manager in a circle on the left and the word Leader in a circle on the right.

Management and leadership are two completely separate things. Management is a role. Managers manage things - processes, teams, products. They are responsible for the day to day running of that thing. Leadership is a personal quality that you can bring to any role. Leaders inspire others with their passion and vision and lead them to do great things. Looking at leadership as something managers grow into actually misses the real point of leadership - that everyone can - and should - lead.

Leadership is not the natural career progression for managers. That’s not to say that managers can't be leaders. They should be. Management is a job like any other and within any job there is room (and often a great need) for leadership.

If I were to ask people in your organisation "Who are the leaders here?", chances are people would point to the managers. I've tried it in several organisations and it's pretty universal. Leadership is seen as something that comes from the top down. People at the top lead, people at the bottom do. The CEO sets the vision and communicates that to their leadership team, the leadership team tweaks it for their teams and cascade down and so on. And that's the way it used to work.

That's not enough though. Top down leadership is too slow, too rigid and too disconnected from reality to work in a modern, fast-paced environment. By the time information has filtered up to the CEO, a strategy has been formed and filtered back down, things have moved on. What organisations need now is leadership at all levels so that when things change, the organisation can react quickly.

Organisations also need leadership in all areas of the organisation, not just within "the business" and the traditional management hierarchy. They need leadership within IT, within finance, within logistics, in their call centres and front-line services. There are challenges within all areas of the organisation and they need leaders to drive change.

If there is a technical challenge, someone in that technical area should step up, exhibit leadership and get the problem fixed. If there is a finance problem, someone from finance should step up. If there is a change needed, an innovation that could be implemented, a new product idea, a business opportunity, whatever comes up, someone within the organisation needs to be able to step up and lead that initiative.

So, who are the leaders in an organisation? Everyone, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Some will have more opportunity than others. There is more opportunity for a CEO to lead than a call centre worker, but when an idea that could revolutionise call centre operations comes up, that call centre worker should be allowed, enabled and encouraged to lead.

If everyone in the organisation should be showing leadership, what exactly does that look like? Leadership is hard to define. Look up leadership and you will get a thousand divergent definitions. For me, leadership is a personal quality. It's almost a confidence field that leaders project. It inspires action in others. There are a few key qualities that allow someone to become a leader -

Responsibility - leaders take responsibility. They don't deflect, make excuses or blame. They take responsibility for whatever it is, commit to doing their best to getting it done. Whether it's fixing a problem, implementing a project or commissioning a new piece of equipment, a leader takes responsibility.

Taking responsibility leads to Respect. Leaders are respected by others in the organisation. People in the organisation know that they are dependable, honest, trustworthy and knowledgeable. They know their limits but always strive to improve. They stretch themselves but don't make unrealistic commitments.

Leaders have a Vision and can communicate that to others. Some visions are very broad - "This nation will set itself the task, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth"; others are narrower - "This is a major pain point for our users and I think this is the way to fix it". Whatever the scope of the vision, the leader needs to be able to paint a picture of what success looks like and what benefit that success will bring to others - "Look guys, if we fix this now, by implementing that new class, it will speed up the build and we can save ourselves a heap of time later on” is all it takes. You don't need a speechwriter, just a sense of what needs doing and what the world will look like when it's done.

The last thing they need is Freedom. Freedom to step forward and take responsibility. If someone steps forward and is told to step right back into their box while "senior" people work this out, they won't be willing to step forward again. If they have the ability, let them. How do you know they have the ability? Do they have the respect of the people in that area? If they do, they probably have the ability. You do have to be careful though, history is full of well-intentioned, charismatic idiots who have lead others into disaster.

The good thing is that every one of those qualities are things that everyone can develop. If given the right encouragement, that quiet developer who doesn’t say much but has the respect of her peers because of her ability and willingness to take responsibility, can develop the ability to communicate a vision. People can develop responsibility, particularly if they have mentoring. Good people will naturally develop respect. All they need then is freedom.

Organisations need a thousand acts of leadership every day at all levels of the organisation. Relying on a small hierarchy of "official" leaders to provide them is impossible and wasteful. It wastes the natural leadership present in every member of the organisation. If you can harness that, you will have the best lead organisation in the world.