Leading vs. Managing: What’s the Difference?

Leading vs. managing: These two organizational skill sets are often confused, in part because they overlap. Let’s explore the difference between leading vs. managing and examine when each can be useful.

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Are you a manager or a leader? Many people would say they are a bit of both. Indeed, the overlap between the two roles can be confusing. Here, we take a look at the difference between leading vs. managing and consider when each role is called for in organizations

Leading vs. Managing: Definitions

In his 1990 book, A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management, Harvard Business School professor emeritus John Kotter clarifies that both leading and managing are essential roles for those who steer organizations and supervise employees. Kotter offers definitions of leading vs. managing that pinpoint the differences between them.

The concept of management was created to “help keep a complex organization on time and on budget,” he writes. The goal of management is to create order and consistent results for customers, clients, shareholders, employees, and other organizational constituents. 

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According to Kotter, the processes that form the core of modern management include:

  1. Planning and budgeting: setting targets or goals for the future; establishing steps for meeting those goals, including guidelines and timetables; and allocating the resources needed to accomplish those objectives.
  2. Organizing and staffing: establishing an organizational structure and jobs; staffing those jobs with qualified workers; delegating responsibilities for meeting goals; and setting up systems to monitor implementation.
  3. Controlling and problem solving: monitoring results; identifying problems that crop up; and planning and organizing to solve problems.

By contrast, leadership in the workplace produces something very different: movement. “Throughout the ages,” writes Kotter, “individuals who have been seen as leaders have created change, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.” Leadership is generally considered effective if it “moves people to a place in which both they and those who depend upon them are genuinely better off, and when it does so without trampling on the rights of others,” writes Kotter. 

In particular, leadership practices in organizations include:

  1. Establishing direction: developing a vision for the future and strategies for realizing the changes needed to meet that vision.
  2. Aligning people: communicating the direction to key actors in order to create coalitions that grasp the vision and are committed to achieving it.
  3. Motivating and inspiring: keeping people moving in the right direction despite political, bureaucratic, and resource barriers to change by appealing to basic human needs, values, and emotions.

Leading vs. Managing: Similarities and Differences

As these definitions suggest, management and leadership have overlapping concerns and goals. “They both involve deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda, and then trying to ensure that those people actually get the job done,” writes Kotter. It would be a mistake to think of management as “only the implementation part of leadership,” he writes, because leadership also requires an implementation process, such as “aligning people to new directions and then inspiring them to make it happen.” Similarly, management includes processes typically thought of as aspects of leadership, including setting direction. 

But the two processes differ in clear ways, Kotter notes. For example, in management, planning and budgeting tend to range from a few months to a few years and are focused on details. By contrast, leadership has a longer time horizon and a big-picture perspective. 

The difference between leadership and management can lead to conflict, according to Kotter: “Strong leadership, for example, can disrupt an orderly planning system and undermine the management hierarchy, while strong management can discourage the risk-taking and enthusiasm needed for leadership.” 

Yet, for organizations to prosper, Kotter emphasizes, both leadership and management are needed. Even as they aim to meet daily, monthly, and annual targets, managers and leaders must set a direction for the future and motivate others to create change. Organizations that have weak management and strong leadership “can become messianic and cultlike, producing change for change’s sake.” Those with strong management but weak leadership—a common pitfall for older organizations—“can turn bureaucratic and stifling,” lacking innovation and becoming risk averse, according to Kotter. 

Leading vs. Managing: Applying Your Skills

Managers must often lead, and leaders must often manage. How can you balance the two roles of leading vs. managing

Managerial skills are relevant when you need to boost productivity, solve process or project problems, train new employees, meet a deadline, or delegate tasks, writes Cara Hutto for InHerSight. Meanwhile, leadership skills often are needed during a crisis, when setting organizational values, during creative discussions and meetings, and when going through a merger or acquisition. 

However, both managerial and leadership skills are called for in most organizational contexts. When organizations were confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, for instance, those in charge needed to draw on their managerial skills to establish social-distancing protocols, set up standards for remote work, and cope with short-term logistical challenges. At the same time, leadership skills were required to keep employees motivated and connected, rethink existing practices, and set a vision for the post-pandemic era. 

What other distinctions would you make between leading vs. managing?

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