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The Leader vs. Manager Dilemma


Photo by Katerina Pavlyuchkova on Unsplash

Leading and managing require separate, sometimes overlapping sets of skills

People don’t give sufficient thought to the distinction between management and leadership and how both show up in their day-to-day responsibilities. The failure to do so only serves to reduce their effectiveness. Essentially, understanding the difference between leadership and management allows us to choose the right approach for any given situation.

Warren Bennis has done much to popularize the distinction between leadership and management with the now-famous quote: "Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing” (Learning to Lead).

We believe that in order to get the best outcomes, the intentional practice of both leadership and management skills is important. Let’s talk about the difference between the two.

“Management is about coping with complexity… Without good management, organizations tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products” (Kotter, Harvard Business Review, 2011).

“Leadership is about coping with change. The business world has become more competitive and more volatile, and major changes are more and more necessary to survive and compete effectively… More change always demands more leadership” (Kotter, Harvard Business Review, 2011).

People can manage and lead. Once companies understand the fundamental difference between leadership and management, they can begin to develop managers to provide both–and they can develop the whole leader.


Leadership vs management skills

During our sessions we often ask participants to list the characteristics of leadership vs. the characteristics of management. From the perspective of creating a simple list, people do a great job, essentially agreeing with Bennis above.

For instance, management characteristics people tend to identify include telling, directing, scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Leadership skills that people tend to list include strategic thinking, inspiring, motivating, innovating, etc.

After building these two lists, the follow-up question is: Which is more important, being a good manager or being a good leader? The great majority of the time, people respond with the absolutely correct answer: “It’s important to be both.”

Henry Mintzberg sums up the need for being a leader-manager best: “I think people who lead without managing don’t know what is going on; just like people who manage without leading are very discouraging” (Mintzberg, 2011).


Daily practice: Leading vs managing

The more challenging aspect of leadership vs. management is found in our day-to-day business interactions. Specifically, when do we use leadership skills versus management skills? It’s much harder to delineate between the two when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of your day.

Before we go any deeper, let’s look at a sample (not all-encompassing) list of the skills for each.



Delegate tasks Set vision & direction
Skills training Inspire & motivate
Project oversight Create space for others to thrive (talent development)
Quality control Coaching
Budgeting Strategic/big-picture thinking
Process implementation & improvement Innovation
Performance feedback (positive, constructive) Promote collaboration/cross-functional influence
Planning Situational adaptability
Goal setting Servanthood (other-centered)
Decision making Share successes
Information sharing Input gathering

Considering the sample lists above, if you’re more comfortable with management skills that is what you’ll default to even when leadership skills are more appropriate. If you’re more comfortable with leadership skills then that is what you will fall back on even when management skills are more appropriate. If you don’t integrate them, you end up as an uninspiring manager or a chaos-causing leader.

Most situations do, in fact, call for the integration of both management and leadership skills. However, it’s the ability to differentiate between which leadership skills and which management skills may be called for in any given situation that will help one be most effective.

For instance, if you delegate and train your people (management skills), but don’t create space for them to thrive (leadership skills), your people may not prosper. If you’re managing a cross-functional project but don’t promote collaboration or utilize cross-functional influence, you may not get the engagement across team members that you are hoping for. If you develop business plans and goals, but don’t position them within an inspiring vision, people may not share your passion for achieving them.

But to truly be able to integrate management and leadership skills, you have to be aware about your strengths and opportunities in both the areas of leadership and management. As you look at the list above – where do you see areas of most opportunity and most strength? In order to be a well-rounded leader throughout the course of your career, you will want to work on both sets.

Using the list above, ask yourself what is the appropriate mix of skills needed for a situation (or two) you are currently facing? If you’re feeling unsure about your ability to execute on one of the skills, take some time to study up in that particular area, seek the counsel of a colleague or your manager, or consider a more formal development opportunity.

Did you enjoy this blog? Download a PDF to save it as a reference!

Kotter, John. “What Leaders Really Do.” Harvard Business Review 68, no. 3 (May–June 1990); 103–11.
Mintzberg, Henry. “The Long View.” T+D 65, no. 1 (Jan. 2011): 68.

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Bill Mugavin

Bill Mugavin , CPLP, is a senior consultant at FlashPoint. He has worked with top-tier Fortune 1000 global organizations to improve leadership and management effectiveness