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The Difference Between Leadership and Management (and Why It Matters)

The words ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ are often seen as synonyms.  People think of senior executives as leaders by default and those in the middle of the org chart as managers.  But this doesn’t necessarily follow. 

Sometimes, this confusion spills over into recruitment.  I vividly remember being hired into a role billed as a leadership position.  Very quickly, it was obvious what they wanted was a manager.  They weren’t receptive to new ideas, and when I disagreed with their strategy, they refused to listen.  It was frustrating for everyone involved, and we soon parted company. 

Leadership and management are different, so it’s important to be clear. They’re so different that you’ll unlikely find someone who can do both successfully.  To be an effective leader requires a different approach, skill set and aptitude to being an effective manager.

What is leadership?

At the top level of an organisation, the CEO provides leadership for the whole business.  So far, so obvious. Their role is simple and boils down to two things: creating the vision and then selling it.

This is leadership in a nutshell.  Defining the strategy to include the purpose of the business and its BHAG and mission.  Providing clarity over what drives the economic engine, the identity of the core customer and creating core values around how the business will work together.  A framework that the whole organisation can follow.  All of this is creating the vision. 

Then, the selling of this vision involves various stakeholders.  Most important are the employees who need a vision that will inspire followship.  This is crucial to effective leadership.  The vision should inspire and empower employees.  Because they know why they’re doing what they’re doing and the behavioural framework to be successful, they’ll automatically know what to do when opportunities arise.  They can make the right decisions. 

Instead of being limited to the most senior roles, I expect every team member to have some essence of leadership. Anyone in a hierarchical position should sell and implement the vision in their own way.  This is why we suggest celebrations during all-hands meetings that include employee of the month or cock-up of the week.  Using the values framework, social currency can be doled out so people have stories about what good looks like in the business. People who generate these stories lead by example just as much as the CEO. 

What is management?

If leadership is mainly concerned with strategy and vision, management is focused on execution.  Planning, organising and controlling resources is central, as is setting objectives and KPIs whilst improving efficiency.  Management is focused on the day-to-day operations of the business.

Managers tend to focus on stability and maintaining the status quo.   Efficiency and effectiveness are key priorities, completing tasks within specific timeframes, problem-solving and bringing results. Managers work closely with their teams to provide guidance, set goals, give feedback, and act as coaches. 

The leadership/management continuum.

I believe there’s a continuum between leadership and management.  At the extreme left, you have the CEO providing overall leadership, and on the right, the managers dealing with the day-to-day running of the business. 

A great tool for working out where people sit on this continuum is the Table Group’s ‘Working Genius’ framework.  The traits correspond – people with ‘Wonder’ and ‘Invention’ sit at the leadership end, whilst those with ‘Tenacity’ and ‘Enablement’ sit at the management end.  From a flight-level perspective, ‘Wonder’ shows up at 50,000 feet (big picture thinking), whilst ‘Tenacity’ is 100 feet off the ground.

In most Executive teams we coach, the CEO sits on the left-hand side, while the rest are on the right.  The meetings take twice as long in teams with lots of ‘Discernment’.  And if there’s no ‘Tenacity’, nothing gets done.  This is why getting the right balance in the team is vital. 

Leadership and motivation

Often, people say leaders should inspire and motivate others.  No!  I disagree.  Yes, the vision needs to be inspirational (and you only have to Google to see how many visions are just plain dull).  But I don’t believe anyone has ever been motivated by someone else.  It’s impossible.  Why?  Because motivation is an internal and personal thing.  You can create the right environment for motivated people to flourish. Nothing more.

Hire people who have the potential to be excited by your vision and share your core values. I’ve just finished reading the new biography of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson.  A great read. Like Steve Jobs, Musk is a master of reality distortion. He uses the force of his will to persuade others to see the world the way he does.  He’ll sit with a good enough grasp of the facts to tell others that they’re talking sh*t.  When people say something will take six months, he tells them it will take six weeks. The choice is stark – he’ll go ahead regardless and wait for others to get on board or resign.  

This approach of pushing people hard seems like a brutal example of leadership.  Certainly, when you read the book, you realise that working for Musk isn’t for everyone.  But those that like it, really like it.  He’s created a cult, and people on his team would die for him.  It was painful to turn Twitter around – he had to sack 75% of the employees.  But those that are left are now fully committed—the power of a communicated vision.

The difference between leadership and management in recruitment

 Too often, there’s confusion about what’s needed for a role – leadership or management.  It’s helpful to be clear on the size of the business and the growth stage your organisation is currently in. 

If it’s a start-up situation, you will need more leadership.  The new hire will likely create something out of nothing, so you’re looking for ideas and vision.

Recruiting to a scale-up is different.  Here, something will already exist.  There’s likely to be a process that needs optimising, iterating and testing.  You’re veering more into the managerial end of the continuum.

Then, all of this has been done in’ grown-up’ businesses.  So even if the job title says ‘leader’, it’s much more likely to be a management role because it’s concerned with turning the handle on a sausage machine.  In a start-up, you build the sausage machine from the spare parts kicking around the garage!

Job titles aren’t the best indicator of levels of leadership or management required.  You could be a VP of Sales in bigger organisations, but it’s still a management role.  And you might be a sales manager in a small business that requires loads of ideas, creativity and leadership. When applying to roles, determine whether you enjoy leading or managing.  I have a client I respect immensely who moved from a Sales Director role in a scale-up to join a start-up.  It wasn’t long before he returned to a bigger business, as he knew he played better in this environment.  He found it hard to be scrappy in the start-up with no team to follow his vision.   

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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