Do you know the difference between leadership and management?

Leadership Memo 2021-2

Last month, I asked, “How do you know you’re a leader?” and I recommended a list of essentials that agile leaders do. This time, I want to get down to the basics. What is the difference between leadership and management? I have heard these two terms being used, sometimes interchangeably. 

Some say, leaders inspire, empower and influence while managers control, plan and execute. You may have seen a list similar to this:

It seems to suggest we need to choose one or the other, and that leadership is better than management. Perhaps because of that, people rename “management team” to “leadership team” or “senior management” to “senior leadership”. Some companies even put “leader” in the ranking, between manager and executive. To me, it seems like people are just renaming high-level job titles. 

Then there are others who argue that management is needed in different circumstances, e.g. in the chaos arena in the Cynefin framework. Some people also have been talking about distributed leadership. This is all so confusing. So, can you explain what leadership is and what management is? Is one better than the other? Should we choose one over the other?

Recently, I came across this school of thought (thanks Jurgen Appelo) that really helps clarify all the distinctions. Management is a job, leadership is a role. Management manages systems, leadership leads people. So, let’s redo the table from above.

As you can see, leadership overlaps management, because leadership is people oriented and management is system oriented. You can be a leader without being a manager, or you can be a manager but not a leader, or you can be both.

“The title makes you a manager, the people make you a leader.” – Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach.

For those of you who have heard that everyone can be a leader, perhaps you now see why you don’t have to be in management to be a leader. For those of you in management, I hope you are leaders as well. 


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