Management and leadership are two different things, not two different people.

Management and leadership are two different things, but that doesn’t mean that managers and leaders are two different people.

This chasm-like division between the fabulous leader whose job is to provide inspiration and direction, and the workmanlike manager who has to get into the weeds and deliver on the detail, is a load of nonsense.

Worse, it’s harmful.

I’ve been a manager for years, and I’ve only succeeded when I was also a good leader. When I’ve been a leader, I only got that right when I didn’t abdicate my responsibility as a manager.

My definition of leadership

Influencing, inspiring and empowering people to do something

My definition of management

Making stuff happen to the agreed quality standards on time and within budget

(Another definition of management is “an act of creating and maintaining such a business environment wherein the members of the organization can work together, and achieve business objectives efficiently and effectively” from Business Jargons – it’s OK, but I find it less clear)

Leadership and management: different, but also complementary.


The division between the two was first articulated by Warren Bennis* to highlight to managers that being a great manager was not enough to succeed as a leader. Julia Kirby, Editor at Large at HBR† said:

The distinction was made initially to communicate to strong managers why being a strong manager wasn’t quite enough to succeed as a leader

This is a great point.

They are two different skills, just like people management is not the same as process management, but that doesn’t mean these two skills need to sit, isolated from each other, in two different human bodies.

Unfortunately too many people seem to think the skills of management and leadership are incompatible and achieving greatness in leadership means shedding the clutter of management … or the reverse problem; the technocratic manager who refuses to understand that their position comes with leadership responsibility.

If you manage people, or if you manage a project or a process or a competency as a subject-matter expert (management is not always in the context of people), you must provide leadership.

If you lead people (and leadership is always in the context of people), you must know how to manage them and understand the detail of your business, industry and competitors sufficiently well so as to know how to set the right mission and strategy.

A leader who fails to do this is being lazy and vain.

Robert L Sutton makes the same point about management and leadership, again in the HBR‡.

Although this distinction is more or less correct and is useful to a degree, it has unintended negative effects on how some leaders do their work.


[It is] … used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve.

Or, to bastardize the Japanese proverb (sometimes attributed to Soichiro Honda)

Leadership without management is a daydream. Management without leadership is a nightmare.

Endpiece whinge

Without misunderstanding and over-simplifying things, newspapers like The Daily Mail would have very little to print§, but this commonplace eagerness to jump to absolute conclusions based on scant knowledge is very wearing. I know I’m the kind of chap who revels in grey areas and enjoys ambiguity – I enjoy the challenge of “wicked problems”¶ – but how Bennis’s ideas have been misunderstood and misapplied has made a lot of workplaces a lot more annoying that they need to be.

Managers are leaders, leaders are managers: two skills, one person, it’s not a difficult concept.


* In Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader

† I read this quote in Harvard Business Review OnPoint (Spring 2013), a comment reply to Robert L Sutton’s article True Leaders Are Also Managers (see Note 3)

‡ Robert L Sutton True Leaders Are Also Managers, first published on August 11, 2010 – I read it in the Spring 2013 HBR OnPoint mag.

§ “You will be familiar with the Daily Mail’s ongoing project to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into ones that either cause or prevent cancer …” (Ben Goldacre writing in The Guardian, worth reading the whole article).

¶ I dislike that expression “wicked problems” to describe complex problems, but that’s the parlance of the trade sadly. It was first used by C West Churchman, way back in 1967, before I was born. The idea is that wicked problems are “resistant to resolution” and trying to solve them can lead to more problems \\

\\ To make matters worse for the logophile pedant, Kelly Levin went on to define “super wicked problems” (here) which are like wicked problems but different because they are also super **.

** Not really, I was trying to be funny in the footnote above. Actually, “super wicked problems” are “super wicked” because they are more wicked, not more super – this means they are even harder to solve with less time to do so.

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