Distinguishing Management from Leadership

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 3rd, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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While I have taught classes on leadership, I don’t present myself as an expert on leadership.  That said, and with apologies to all those who have spent their careers studying and pontificating on leadership, I will borrow from the wonderful Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart I know good leadership when I see it.

In my conceptualization of the world, the positions of leader and manager are two different positions, which is not to say that that a leader cannot also be an excellent manager and a manager can’t also be a leader.  What is required of each are different skill sets that can co-reside in the same person.

Truthfully, however, that is a rarity.  And, in my world, the skills needed to be a good manager may be taught to a student willing to learn; however, all are not willing.  Some are more talented at being managers than others, and we should greatly value the former.  True leadership, however, cannot be taught, although a predisposition to leadership can absolutely be nurtured by design, experience, etc., or stifled, just as many other kinds of predispositions.

Talking strictly in the world of work, we find official leaders—those who have been explicitly named leader—leader of the organization, a division, a program—and unofficial leaders—those who are at all levels of the organizational chart who step up, who influence, who are the spark, and to whom people turn.  Managers, on the other hand, if not officially appointed ,tend to be marginalized, dismissed as interfering, overstepping, etc.

Organizations need both good leaders and good managers, yet when it comes time to find a leader for a tier on the organizational chart, we most often find ourselves looking at a pool of tested managers and presume that the successful manager will be a successful leader.  Big mistake!  Just look at the career path of most people:  the first big step up the career ladder is to supervisor.  The professional development that goes along with this step on the career ladder is task driven:  how to supervise, how to do a good performance review, how to give feedback.  And so it goes.  In the nonprofit sector, sadly, too much professional development, when done at all, is focused on that tactical skill enhancement and not the stuff that develops the skills of leader.

I see our failure to distinguish management and leadership and who is a capable manager and who a capable leader played out again and again in who is selected to be the official leaders in organizations.

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch two new leaders settle in—not new to leadership positions, but new to the leadership positions in which they found themselves.  One said she would be frank and was, said she would be transparent and was.  She was willing to show and share her emotions, to be real and human, to communicate honestly, to be accessible to all, yet all while clearly taking charge—and responsibility—and leading.

As a result, she had and continues to have followers, and although not all are happy, they follow because she inspires them to do so.  The other, was distant, said she would be transparent then wasn’t, talked in platitudes, communicated rarely—and then poorly.  While she surrounded herself with advisors, who, theoretically, complimented her weaknesses, they either didn’t, advised her poorly and/or she ignored their advice; and they appeared a shield, making her seem insulated and aloof.  While she had the title and authority of “leader,” she did not take charge, did not lead, did not take responsibility.  She had no followers.

Let’s face it, selecting good leaders is a crap shoot.  We get to see how they were in their last position and can only make some projections as to how they will be in the next.  But with each tier of leadership, the expectations and the needs change.  Some can keep stepping up to the plate; others max out.  The art—as I’ve seen no divining protocol that works—is differentiating the two.


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