Management vs Leadership

Arguing the difference between “management” and “leadership” is an old debate, one that can come across as the business school equivalent of the ancient theological conundrum “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Our colleague John Hillen, a seasoned CEO and board director as well as a Professor at George Mason University, suggests a different way of thinking about these fundamental concepts, and offers some useful insights for anyone in the business of getting results with and through others. We’d love to hear any of your responses: newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

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The more I talk with experienced CEOs, especially the executives who have led more than one company or institution, the more I am struck by how firmly they believe that Leadership and Management are different disciplines requiring a completely different outlook and set of skills. They never say that both are not needed—in individual executives or in aggregate in the enterprise—but the more experienced executives are, the more they see leadership and management as being distinct competencies, complementary but unalike.

The majority of formal corporate training focuses on management skills, those critical capabilities that tend to be centered on the “how?” questions in organizations: How can we get this proposal done by Friday? How can we implement this new software update across the client’s enterprise? How do we manage our cash flow to accumulate reserves for our investment goals? Corporate training does a good job here, teaching and issuing certificates in project management, information systems security, database administration, and various other aspects of financial, operations, engineering, development, and project management tasks.

In contrast, leadership competencies tend to focus on the “why?” questions in organizations. Or even the ‘where?”, “what?”, and “by whom?” questions: Why are we trying to win this contract, and what difference will it make when we do? Where does that initiative fit into our strategy? What is our strategy and why did we chose it? Who is best suited to talk to the client about this issue? What defines success or failure on this program? What are our values and why do they matter? Leadership questions are most often about the bigger picture. The answers to these questions don’t just tell people how to get something done by the end of the week, they tell people why doing it matters. Leadership questions therefore tend to focus on purpose and meaning: why what the team is working on matters to the organization and how it fits into a recognizable pattern of purpose and achievement.

Although leadership questions can be bigger-picture in nature than management questions, even philosophical at times, they absolutely are not just for CEOs or senior executives! I once had a new team leader in her 20’s quiz me in the break room about how to explain to her team of three developers where they were going with their task and why it would matter. A certified project manager and developer, she had no problem spelling out the how, but her team needed more in order to excel; they needed to know where, in a visceral sense, their work “fit” into the enterprise.

So the take-away for some CEOs I talk with is not that leadership competencies are only for senior executives and management skills are for so-called “working level” professionals; that’s a false dichotomy. Instead, the lifetime lesson from these CEOs (that it took some of them an entire career to appreciate) is that any highly performing executive in a supervisory role needs both Leadership and Management skills … and should train on them differently because they are distinct.

In the course of a professional career in any field that ultimately might include supervisory, management, or leadership roles, the general pattern shown in the illustration below applies. At the beginning of a career, almost all the skills a professional will wield in her daily, weekly, or monthly duties are technical and tactical in nature. These are the sorts of skills that most professional certifications capture. Moving on in one’s career, and especially when a professional is asked to be a boss for the first time, a promotion might happen because that person was tops among peers in those technical and tactical skills.

But when the time for a second major promotion comes around, often the person picked to be the boss is not the most skilled per se (even in an accounting department, software development organization, or other highly technical area), but rather the best leader. And leaders tend to spend most of their time on strategic and interpersonal skills: those why, where, what, and by whom questions. Leaders are in the business of making sure that the work of their team fits into the overall plan and strategy, and that the value of that work is understood by everyone around them. Interpersonal skills are labor-intensive because people are so different from each other: we all hear and process information differently, and we all have different motivators and values. Leaders must articulate the purpose and path of their teams in different ways to ensure that each person understands the path forward in a way that is meaningful to him or her.

Recognizing this distinction between leadership and management is a common “ah ha” moment for experienced executives. But doing something about it in their organization is where most of them would like to make progress. Despite the bookshelves groaning under the weight of business leadership books, most CEOs I talk to feel they always have a leadership deficit in their company. While almost all organizations would love to have another planeload of competent PMPs, CISSPs, MBAs, CISAs, ScrumMasters, and the like, almost all CEOs would give that up for a carful of executives at every level of management who have taken the time to train not just to be a good managers, but to layer onto their career the strategic and interpersonal skills necessary to be an effective organizational leader.

"Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them."
-—John C. Maxwell

Note: a version of this article appeared in Washington Technology Magazine.