3 Ways Leadership and Management Are Totally Different

Leading and managing are distinct roles, each critical to your organization’s health, that require different skills and capabilities. Yet all too often, I see well-intentioned entrepreneurs, CEOs, and their executive teams blend them and unknowingly slow their progress.

I recently spoke with a CEO (I’ll call Sarah) who was disappointed and frustrated with her HR director. The HR director was getting things done sufficiently and on time, but wasn’t effective at driving meaningful change. Here’s one example of several Sarah shared to illustrate the issue:

“We needed to save money on health insurance without reducing benefits. I delegated the task of reassessing our plan to my HR director, who then set a relatively low target for cost improvement. When I saw his number, I challenged his thinking and pushed for a higher savings target, which we ultimately met.”

She continued: “He executed well, because we met the more aggressive objective, but I’m disappointed he didn’t set a more aggressive target in the first place. Why do I have to continually push him to aim higher?”

I suggested Sarah separate the HR director’s performance as a manager (which was solid) from his performance as a leader (which was lacking). This insight helped her see the HR director’s performance and capabilities in a different light and led to more productive (and precise) coaching and, ultimately, better performance in the leadership realm. 

As I explained to Sarah that day, there are three dimensions that differentiate leaders from managers: directing/planning, aligning/organizing, and motivating/controlling.

Clarifying these critical distinctions—and the unique value of each—will help you with your team and in your own role.

Leaders versus Managers

“Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities.”

– John P. Kotter, Professor of Leadership,
Emeritus, Harvard Business School

John P. Kotter was among the first business thinkers to make a strong case for separating leadership and management roles in his 1990 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled, “What Leaders Really Do.” In it, he argues that, rather than making plans, solving problems, or organizing people, the true role of a leader is to “prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” 

In 2015, Gino Wickman and Mark Winters made a more contemporary case for the distinction between leadership and management in their book Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business. Focused on high growth and entrepreneurially run firms, they used the terms “visionary” and “integrator” in place of “leader” and “manager.” 

Regardless of the terminology or the era of the thinking, as my client Sarah discovered, the message is the same: Leaders produce change, primarily by focusing on communication. Managers cope with execution and complexity, relying heavily on their coordination skills to make it all happen. 

Again, both roles are critical for your organization: One is not “better” or more vital than the other––the two are essential for scalability and success. If you’re wondering whether it’s possible for someone to be both a strong leader (visionary and change agent) and a strong manager (operator), it is—but that combination is exceptionally rare.

Here are the key behaviors specific to each of the two roles:

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Most of us know intuitively which of the two roles best suits us. The key is to understand the distinctions and strive to optimize your team, with the right leaders and managers in the right seats. 

Setting Direction versus Planning and Budgeting

“The most important role of a leader is to set a clear direction, be transparent about how to get there, and to stay the course.”
– Irene Rosenfeld, Former Chairman
and CEO of Mondelēz International

I often say that the primary role of leadership is to point to what matters most, which is the function of setting direction. Setting direction is the domain of deciding what and who you’ll become and how you intend to make that happen. Strategy, product development, performance targets, and culture are all examples of critical decision areas that fall under the domain of leadership, and require setting direction. Leaders also need to communicate the decisions they make in those areas effectively and repeatedly over time.

Planning and budgeting are required to successfully execute on the direction that has been set. But they, on the other hand, require coordination––determining the exact details, steps, resources, and timing necessary to move forward––a responsibility that is naturally embedded in each management function.

This distinction holds true not only at the macro levels of an organization––say, setting operational strategy (a leadership responsibility) and execution planning (a management responsibility), but also at the micro level (think back to Sarah’s frustration with her HR director who wasn’t effectively setting direction for the healthcare assessment due to his leadership limitations, but who planned and executed the project well due to his strong management skills).

A note of caution, particularly as we approach the fourth quarter and business planning season: long-term planning is not the same as setting direction! Under the banner of “strategic planning,” all too often the actual conversation is 100 percent focused on execution planning, which is essentially what the team wants to “do.” The critical leadership function of setting direction is overlooked or assumed to be known, so the team spends their valuable time planning to get to a place they haven’t clearly defined. Be sure to allocate time for both setting direction and planning as part of this year’s annual planning process. If you need help thinking through how, just ask!

Aligning People versus Organizing and Staffing

“Growth is never by mere chance;
it is the result of forces working together.”
– James Cash Penney,
Founder of J.C. Penney Stores 

The leadership function of creating alignment is primarily a communication challenge—that is, to have them understand where you, they and the organization are headed. 

Most leaders I know under communicate due to social projection, a psychological process through which they expect others’ beliefs to be the same as their own. This causes leaders to falsely assume (and believe) that their people have the same information they do. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! 

Let’s say you’ve established clarity when it comes to purpose, core values, vision, strategy, and priorities. It’s a fantastic start, but how do you share and repeat that information? And what about metrics or scoreboards to share progress and maintain alignment? Who sees those, how frequently, and how well is the information understood?

What’s on your mind as a leader, should be on their minds. One way or another, repetition is the answer.

For managers, on the other hand, organizing and staffing requires careful coordination of resources like people, funds, equipment, and partners, such that the organization’s tactical goals can be accomplished. This requires systems, processes, and tradeoffs. Details are critical, as is the imperative to get the right people into the right seats to ensure smooth execution and predicted results.

Here’s how Kotter sums it up: “Managers look for the right fit between people and jobs. This is essentially a design problem: setting up systems to ensure that plans are implemented precisely and efficiently. Leaders, however, look for the right fit between people and vision. This is more of a communication problem. It involves getting many people, both inside and outside the company, to believe in an alternative future––and then to take initiative based on that shared vision.”

Motivating and Inspiring versus Controlling and Problem-Solving

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior:
you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
– Simon Sinek, Author and Speaker 

Since the function of a leader is to create change, making change attractive to their team is also essential to the role.

Change is hard for many people. It can be difficult to let go of the status quo, regardless of how well things might or might not be working. As such, organizational change is typically challenging and jarring to staff. Preaching vision in the form of a better future is an example of how leaders motivate and inspire people to embrace change. Here again, repetition pays.

But beware: there’s a fine line between hollow cheerleading and meaningful inspiration and motivation. Effective leaders understand the difference and invest considerable time in getting this right and continuing momentum to keep their people engaged over time.

Managers oversee the implementation of change and focus on adhering to a plan, detecting deviations (or potential deviations), and course-correcting. This is the essential domain of controlling outcomes and problem solving. Managers create and implement systems and structures to make outputs more predictable, to measure and detect deviations, and to solve the problems that inevitably present themselves along the team’s path.

I’ve seen entrepreneurs, CEOs and executives mistakenly blend these functions to their organization’s detriment. There’s no time or space to communicate a grand vision when granular planning and challenging prioritization decisions need to be made. On the other hand, the CEO who describes a very detailed plan to the entire firm misses the opportunity to preach vision and inspire the team to rise to the challenge ahead.

Make the time to get both functions right.


“Focus on being balanced — success is balance.”
– Laila Ali, Professional Boxer

Leaders set direction and communicate to align people. Managers plan and coordinate. High-performing organizations reward, develop, and balance both roles.

Although you need leaders and managers on your team to succeed, quite often out of necessity––particularly in a small or high-growth firm––you may have to perform both functions simultaneously. If this is the case, be sure you are fully aware of which role you are occupying at any given moment in time. If you’re wearing your manager hat to run a planning meeting, fulfill the role by focusing on the details, on planning, and on coordinating people, systems, and outputs. You must do the same in other situations when you wear your leader hat, communicating vision, inspiration, direction, and the need for change to the team.

Further, know which of the roles is your stronger suit and—if possible—ensure you have at least one person on your team who compliments your strength with their own in the opposite area. This is the essence of the balanced visionary/integrator concept that Wickman and Winters wrote about in Rocket Fuel

Finally, keep an eye toward the future and consider how you are developing tomorrow’s leaders and managers as you scale. Although by now you understand the imperative to develop both, most organizations I’ve encountered have a “leadership development” process that produces managers, not leaders! That kind of confusion won’t get you where you want to go. Rather, use these principles to evaluate and optimize development tracks for future leaders and future managers in your firm. 

As Kotter explained, “the real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance the other.” Where is your current balance point and what do you need to do about it to accelerate your firm’s progress?

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