Leadership Versus Management

I threw the concept out at a recent All Hands Meeting that I had about the differences between leadership versus management.  I got this strange quizzical look from a few of the strong managers in the room.  I’ve seen that look many times over the past decade from some executives on my team. 

I’ve noticed that when we have these kinds of conversations, it ends up with the suggestion that strong management is equated with strong leadership.  Or that success is equivalent to strong leadership.  And sometimes there’s a little resentment because of a hint that maybe strong management is a bad thing.  But, hey, some of my best friends are strong managers and that’s not the point.  You can be successful if you’re strong in either one of them, but in times of change, you need the right amount of both.  To do so, you need to understand the difference and have the right amount of both to not just weather the storm, but come out of it better as a person or better as an organization. 

So, what is it the difference anyway?  John P. Kotter defines the differences as follows:

  • Management – makes systems of people and technology work well day after day, week after week, and year after year.
    • Planning,  budgeting, organizing and staffing
    • Controlling and problem solving
    • Taking complex systems of people and technology and making them run efficiently and effectively, hour after hour, day after day
  • Leadership –  creates the systems that managers manage and changes them in fundamental ways to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid hazards
    • Creating vision/strategy and communicating/setting direction
    • Motivating action and aligning people
    • Creating systems that managers can manage and transforming them when needed to allow for growth, evolution, opportunities and hazard avoidance

How do you know you’re a strong leader but a weak manager?  Well, typically, you’d be charismatic and perhaps very innovative and creative.  But, your career or the organizations you lead will be on the brink of chaos.  The same would hold true if your organization had a gracious plenty amount of leadership, but an insufficient amount of strong management competencies.  Oh, yeah, you’d have lots of ideas, but would seldom be able to get things done.

How do you know you’re a strong manager but a weak leader?  Well, typically, you’d have a track record of success.  But, your career would fizzle out over time and the organizations you lead would have a very difficult adapting to most changes.  An organization with an insufficient amount of strong leadership competencies would be bureaucratic and controlling and would have a difficult time adapting to changes in the environment. 

CIOs or those who lead technical people or organizations would not be surprised to find an abundance of strong managers in their organizations.  Network, operations, and data center managers create a legacy of success based on their ability to manage technology effectively and deliver reliable, consistent, and available services to customers day after day.  Yet, these heroes of today often become the dinosaurs of tomorrow when they fail to navigate rough waters of the sea of changes in customer demand or in the technology environment.   

But, getting the right balance of management and leadership in technical organizations is a big leadership hill to climb.  Paul Glen in Leading Geeks, talks about the special challenge of leading these technical management superstars:

“Geeks’ independence combines with their tendency to make merciless judgments of leaders to make it difficult to earn their respect.  Things can be especially tough for leaders without a technical background, since geeks place a high value on technical prowess as a qualification for leadership.”

It’s no wonder that successful technical organizations have difficulty recognizing leadership competencies and their value.  But, failure to do so will ultimately end up in organizational demise.  In the public sector, this translates to lack of stakeholder support, lack of relevance, and ultimately to mission failures. 

Ending here on a quote that aptly describes the management versus leadership:

The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything or nothing. – Lady Nancy Astor

We avoid those dangers with the right balance of both management and leadership.


Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

4 thoughts on “Leadership Versus Management”

  1. I would suggest that the vision is created by management and executed or built upon by the leaders. Strategy is a combination / partnership of Management and Leadership in its building and execution… a good strategy is flexible to enable direction changes and still move towards the Vision and Goals accomplishment.

    An excellent topic that generates much discussion and of course many thoughts.. during meetings this question causes many to pause and become very thoughtful.. with of course the quizical faces. It also causes some to reflect and review.. have they been managers, leaders, bosses, workers, followers? That internal reflection needs to be generated often so that all are conscious of where they are in this equation. Again hours of writing can an have been done on this topic.
    Very Good thought provoking Blog.

  2. Linda,

    This statement:

    “Geeks’ independence combines with their tendency to make merciless judgments of leaders to make it difficult to earn their respect. Things can be especially tough for leaders without a technical background, since geeks place a high value on technical prowess as a qualification for leadership.”

    …is one of the keystones that the comic strip “Dilbert” trades upon. His pointy-haired boss is possibly less technically competant than the caveman who first made fire, and while he is Dilbert’s manager he is certainly not his leader.

    Back when I did plant DCS upgrades and commissioning, I took it upon myself to learn the strengths and weaknesses of my “team members”. No sense in wasting time trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. In that respect, I was a good leader…my name stayed off the Porta-John walls!

    By contrast, the year I managed the Hagan Ring Balance product line I turned out to be what I consider a mediocre manager. Sure, the product line made a profit and we satisfied the customers, but my insistence at overseeing everything to the smallest detail (micromanaging) is not considered to be the way to do things.
    It didn’t help that I was the only one who knew how everything went together, nor did it help that my people were constantly reassigned to other projects.

    This is common with us “geeks”, as we typically expend our energies on the project at hand while ignoring the myriad of things required to manage that project…things like ordering parts, keeping track of everyone’s time so they get paid, and keeping one’s finger on how the project is progressing.

    Details…it’s all about the details!

  3. Linda Cureton.

    It’s an interesting question. I can not believe it should say “leadership” versus “management.” The two things are complementary. An extraordinarily capable person who could make a good management at the same time being a good leader is laudable, it is a special person. But even in these cases, so that no excess liability, centralization, and almost a monopoly of direction is very interesting to see things separately, complementing one another. Leadership determines the direction, management determines the means. Leadership makes the policy, encourages, oversees all aspects of the mission, it risks. Management is technical, precise and limited in number and generally restricted to monetary aspects and logistics procedures. Management assists the lead. The leadership ensures management. Management requires more accurate and is generally limited in scope secure. Leadership administers the variants and overcomes unforeseen obstacles. Leadership creates, maintains management. As I said, a person possessing both qualities is great. But perhaps not better than the union of a good leader and a good manager. Simply because two heads are better than one (rule). Thus, a person must make an effort to be a good leader and a good manager, while known to share centralized decision with another person, restricting their activities to the leadership or management. A sign of good leadership and good management to delegate powers, duties and responsibilities distribute. Thus, between leadership and management, stay with the two, adding them.

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