To Lead or to Manage, that is the question. Is there any difference ?

December 11, 2017

Does it really matter that people use the words ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ interchangeably? Aren’t they basically the same anyway?

 

The fact that management has become less fashionable and leadership is in the ascendancy can explain the dual uses of both words. Leadership is sexy, powerful, an activity for our complex and uncertain times. Management is very 20th Century, dull, monochrome and for people who are stuck. So even if your main work is managing let’s call it leadership to give it spice and make it sound more appealing in the modern world.

But what if they are actually different activities and by merging the two we lose something of fundamental importance in the way society functions. I use the term ‘society’ here because both activities are not just the preserve of organisations or, more narrowly, of the business world - they are both social phenomena. In fact they are both at the heart of a functioning of society. When people come together in some sort of shared activity - sporting, entertainment, good cause, community group, family/tribe/clan, club, religious collective, as well as business and professional groups - leadership eventually emerges, if its not organised and appointed first, to help move the group towards some goal or mutually beneficial activity. In the same setting the management of all the elements that make the group work also has to occur otherwise chaos and anarchy takes place and the power and the potential of moving forward is lost. 

 

Leading and managing are, importantly, different activities that achieve different things. To lead is to move into new territory which can happen in thought and/or deed. Its about seeing the way ahead along, as yet, untrod paths. Its about new ideas and new thinking and requires a set of skills and qualities that enable this thinking to take place. It is often a disruptive activity because it involves moving beyond the status quo and away from the familiar and, depending on how the new is received, can involve challenging and convincing. It preempts and engages with the need for change which promises continued disruption to old ways and established routines. Leading is, in modern parlance, a creative activity and utilises similar cognitive abilities to any creative activity; that ability to break through the boundaries of established thinking and actions.  

 

In contrast, management is about making what we have work and work well. Again this is necessary in any social setting if the goals and desires of the group are to be achieved. Managing can also involve inventiveness as a means of making things work better, ensuring the best is achieved through the resources available. But is should be about smoothing the way forward, reducing the friction, and overcoming the inevitable obstacles that get in the way of progress. Managing is not a lesser role; its a different role. As such it requires a different set of skills and qualities.

 

Apart from the fact that they are different activities requiring different attributes, they also need to be distinguished because they may be carried out by different people. There are people with a strong sense of the future and where things could go and how things could be different, people who over time develop a track record of being right about future possibilities. If they are carried out by the same people they may be activities that are required at different times rather than simultaneously. This is particularly important when we think of people with titles and job descriptions that describe them as leaders or managers because such people may find that there are times when it is important to manage even though they are designated CEO or MD, and the same people may be expected to take the lead in moving the organisation or group forward in new ways at particular times and in particular circumstances - but not all the time. For these people shifting from one mode of working to another is the challenge and requires a good understanding of the difference between the two elements of the role - ‘to lead or to manage that becomes the question’. Leading and managing also demand different attitudes and approaches to risk and it could be argued have different levels of responsibility in relation to the way their actions and behaviour impact on situations, organisations and people.

Both leading and managing share one important dimension which is they are not value free, nor are they immune from human inconsistency, nor the influence of personality traits. People bring to leading and to managing values that influence what they choose to do in their roles and how they choose to do it. People in these roles may perform the roles well or poorly and may be inconsistent in how well or how poorly they perform. Personality traits add another dimension that provides ‘flavour’ to how they perform the roles. Leaders who are predisposed to receiving recognition and praise for what they do behave in ways that gain that response often taking on the hero role; those that seek power and control build foundations of influence; and those that suffer feelings of insecurity and inferiority may build impenetrable walls of defence and an unwillingness to allow others to ‘have their say’. In similar ways managing can reflect the personality strengths and weaknesses of those engaged in these activities.

 

For all these reasons it is important to provide a very distinct approach to developing leading and managing skills and behaviours whether they are seen to be invested in a single person or are specialist activities of different people. The organisational world and especially that inhabited by businesses has linked leading and leadership as well as managing and management with roles and titles. The majority of these roles require both the ability to manage and to lead but not necessarily at the same time. Knowing when to engage which set of skills and qualities is rarely taught or consciously understood and this has been exacerbated by the merging of the two activities in the rhetoric and in the literature. In most organisations managing is usually an on-going, daily activity where as leading is required at more specific and targeted points. There is also a real danger that leading is only ever linked to a role or title despite the fact that new ways forward can emanate from anywhere in an organisation in the same way that it does in informal community groups.

 

The need to recapture the special nature of leading and to recognise when it is being used, who is taking on that function and the  value it can bring are important in promoting the heathy development and  welfare of all social social and corporate activities.

 

 

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