Not much apart?

May 21, 2018

How would you describe the difference between leadership and management? Are they different or interchangeable?

The call for leadership, even transformational leadership, is loud in many organizations.

At the same time, there is a call for performance to be managed and directed towards measurable objectives and targets. Jobs and their related competencies are closely defined, protocols prescribed, procedures made systematic and, in many cases, handed over to computers to control.

Leadership requires us to be personally attractive, to draw others to follow us. Being recognized as a leader is something to aspire. It is associated with more senior positions in organizations (directors are expected to be leaders), and more junior positions are described as managerial and supervisory. And yet, the managerial mentality dominates. How can this be so?

Management has triumphed over leadership because we can grasp it. It defines, codifies, predicts, and makes things systematic. It is about bringing order to things.

Management is sure of itself and in control of the situation. It spots variances and takes corrective action. You know where you are with management.

Leading, on the other hand, is about discovering meaning in groups and organizations. It is concerned with the shared and conflicting senses of purpose and of direction in groups. It involves discovering what the priority is and why. What are we seeking to achieve? How do we build on the essence of what we have done before and create the new?

recognizing interdependence

Leading involves the recognition that you are dependent on others. This is not some deficit on your part; it allows you to respect the experience and skills of those whom you need to engage in a joint enterprise. Others sense your willingness to inquire, connect, and develop some intention together. They can then attach to you and the shared direction and task.

This sense of interdependence matters to us as human beings—to connect to others and to some purpose, and meaning is part of what it means to be human.

acknowledging uncertainty

When people lead well, they acknowledge uncertainty—the things we cannot know and cannot control. Leading is rooted in previous experience and based on intuition and subjective judgement. However, uncertainty is inimical to modern organizational life; risk management procedures and quality control aim to eliminate it from working life.

Management knows the data in the same way as the scorer at a sporting event keeps track of things. Knowing the score as a leader is necessary, but far from sufficient. Leaders also need an understanding of their part in choosing which score to keep track of.

a faded picture of leadership

In many organizations, the idea of leadership has been reduced to the functional and utilitarian one of directing followers towards prescribed managerial goals and objectives. Leadership has been redefined by stealth. Just as the colors in a picture hanging on a wall may fade unnoticed over time, our understanding of leadership has faded, and with it our sense of what it means to be human at work.

Leadership becomes getting people to do what the top leader, the abstract plan, and the administrative system want them to do in order to satisfy the performance measures and bonus targets.

Leadership is charged with sweetening and softening the bitter pill of change. Participative processes and consultation exercises become a way of cajoling people into doing things differently through the illusion of being involved in some way. Leadership itself is reduced to a trainable set of competencies. In recent times, leaders have been required to become emotionally intelligent. The assumption is that a leader who matches the competencies will, as night follows day, be successful in leading—or more accurately, engineering desired changes in performance. Leading change comes to mean managing change. It is defined as moving from the present unsatisfactory order of things to a prescribed future order.

All these approaches put (albeit unconsciously) management before leadership. It is assumed that change can be lived through in predictable steps; in an orderly fashion. Yet, designed change processes founder time and time again. The only thing that does seem predictable is the failure of engineered change from the top, without involvement of all levels of the organization. One of the reasons is that we avoid the risk involved in all change, all human interaction, and communication. The other reason is that emotions are really not intelligent; they are emotional and subjective, and therefore, have a non-mechanistic and intuitive logic to them.

We sometimes lead and we sometimes manage, and we do so in many different ways, depending on the moment and the context. We need to value both managing and leading, and the need to hold both together in a dynamic relationship—mentally as well as practically.