By John O’Leary in Harvard Business Review 20/06/2016
Business people and business theorists love to draw distinctions between management and leadership. They tell us that “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing” and “management is administration, but leadership is innovation.”
Management, we seem to think, is what we need to do, but leadership is what we want to do.
This is a conundrum that many of us describe, but is it real? Are leadership and management fundamentally different roles in practice? Or do they simply require us to focus on different things?
I recently had the opportunity to think about this topic from multiple perspectives, as part of the M.A. program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at The University of Texas at Austin. My 34 years’ experience in multinational organizations and my studies led me to ask is there really any difference between leadership and management in the early 21st Century? And, if there is, where does it lie?
I studied eight leaders who came from business, government, and NCAA Division I sports. Collectively, they have 197 years of professional experience and have spent 139 years in leadership or management positions. I used a semi-structured interview technique that focused separately on leadership and management. After our conversations, I conducted a textual analysis of the transcripts using a framework of the concepts, behaviors and activities of leadership and management.
All of the interviewees described leadership as being different from management when asked a direct question at the end of the interview. The participants responded with differing degrees of emphasis — from “they’re different” to “absolutely” — but they clearly expressed the idea that leadership and management are separate, different concepts.
Yet these conversations also revealed a more nuanced distinction in the participants’ understanding of the actual, performative difference between leadership and management. Their responses about behaviors and activities indicate a difference of focus within a set of foundational elements that are common to both leadership and management.
For example, interviewees often mentioned the character of the leader and the positive effects that her character and behaviors can have on her followers. When talking about management, they focused on the behaviors of the manager in terms of the objectives of efficient delivery of performance and the successful achievement of results. Moreover, management behaviors dominantly center on the manager: gaining trust, being accountable, being optimistic, being visible, and providing recognition and reward. Leadership behaviors focus on the staff: trust people, engage people, motivate and encourage people.
Attitudes toward delegation and development make this distinction even clearer. “Managers” delegated largely as a way to increase efficiency; “leaders” delegated as a way to empower subordinates. Interviewees also mentioned more behaviors that leaders undertook to develop their employees – 14 behaviors in all. Only five such behaviors emerged for managers, leading me to conclude that employee development is seen as more central to the job of a “leader.” These five behaviors center on developing staff capability and team coherence to achieve the work goals. In contrast, the 14 leadership behaviors described by the participants focus on staff development for the benefit of the team.
Even when talking about their own self-improvement, the view of “managers” is that they’re more focused on themselves and on results, while “leaders” are more other-focused. Specifically, managers were described as focused on autodidactic improvement (i.e., practicing patience, doing self-reflection, having realistic expectations), whereas leaders were described as learned from other people (e.g., through gaining feedback or having mentors).
These conversations made clear to me that we think of managers having a different focus from leaders. And yet this distinction blurs significantly when we look at the daily activities of these people in charge. The majority of the activities described were very similar, or even identical — delegating, learning, motivating, and so on.
So, are leadership and management different in practice?
I’d suggest that they aren’t that different in terms of how they actually play out in organizations. Certain behaviors and activities are common to the effective demonstration of both leadership and management. The crucial difference – maybe the only difference — is the focus of the person carrying them out. Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management; but what you’re actually doing may not be that different.
John O’Leary has observed and practiced leadership and management in the energy industry for over 30 years. His interests focus on the development of leadership skills, and their effective use, in large organizations.