What’s the Difference Between “Leadership” and “Management”?

The question dates back decades.  In a 1977 article in the Harvard Business Review, leadership expert Abraham Zaleznik argued that whereas managers were supposed to focus on competence and control, leaders were expected to enlighten and inspire. * Not many years later, another leadership expert, Warren Bennis, sounded a similar theme – one that similarly depicted the manager as a bit of a hack and the leader a creature of a higher order. For example, in Bennis’s lexicon the manager was an administrator, the leader an innovator; the manager was a copy, the leader an original. You get the idea.   

Since then, the distinctions between the words “leader” and “manager” have remained frustratingly opaque. Well into the 21st century we are still failing in the main to define “leadership” and “management.” We are still neglecting in the main to distinguish between them. And we are still continuing in the main to use them interchangeably. It’s embarrassing, really, that in corporate America and even in business and professional schools, we still use the words as if they were synonymous, as if leaders and managers were one and the same.

In my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I railed against this, concluding that “most institutions and organizations have simply thrown in the towel on this one.” They don’t “take the time or the trouble to define the two words, or to distinguish between them, or to use them in ways that are clear and consistent.” Among my several concerns was the leadership industry confusing precisely those clients and students to whom, ostensibly, we provide a service. Hence, I argued, “this has to stop.”   

This is not a problem requiring a rocket scientist. The way to distinguish between leadership and management is to declare once and for all that, by definition, the former implies a service component while the latter does not. In other words, ethics plays a part. There should be no leadership education, training, or development that does not require a demonstrable commitment to serving others.  

Even in the year since Professionalizing Leadership was published my argument has acquired a newfound resonance.  The reason is the question “what is the purpose of business?” has recently been revisited.  For many years, corporate America has been perfectly satisfied to buy into the proposition (propagated by Milton Friedman) that for a company to pursue anything other than (legal) profit was “pure and unadulterated socialism.” More recently, though, the idea that business has but a single objective has come into question. Why? Precisely because it omits from its calculus the welfare of everyone else – of everyone other than the shareholder. As Andrew Edgecliffe Johnson recently wrote in the Financial Times, “Challenges to Friedman’s model have been gathering momentum. Now…they are starting to converge into something that looks like a new world view, shared by leading executives and investors and shaped by an unlikely alliance of consumers, employees, campaigners, academics and regulators. Together they would …offer a new model for capitalism based on the watchwords of purpose, inclusion and sustainability.” **

The point is that inclusion and redistribution are ideas whose time has come. Which explains why big business is starting, slowly, to pay attention. High time then for the leadership industry to do the same. To recapture the idealism originally associated with “leadership” – and to distinguish it from “management” by tying the former forevermore to service.

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*“Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in Harvard Business Review, January 1977.  HBR reprinted the article in 2004.

** “Beyond the Bottom Line,” FT, January 5, 6, 2019.  

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