Leading vs. Managing: Are They Really That Different?

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Definition of the word LeadershiopManaging and leading…two words used all the time. But did you ever think about how they’re related? Are they more alike or more different?

First, basic definitions: To manage is “to be in charge of, administer run.” To lead, on the other hand, is defined as “to be in charge or command of.” Hmmm. On the surface, at least, the two could almost be synonyms. But for anyone who’s ever managed or led (or managed and led!) and for those who’ve been managed or led by others, there are very distinct differences between the two.

So the relevant questions, especially for business owners, are: What’s the point of understanding the differences between managing and leading? Should you be doing more of one or the other or some combination of both? And what if (as at least one prominent expert says) what’s most important is not to focus on the differences?

A lot’s been written about managing and leading, and there used to be a tendency to place a higher value on leaders, who are bold and inspiring, versus managers, who are more mundane and focus on everyday details. That notion has faded some as we embrace more fluid roles and a much broader range of what constitutes desirable traits, competence and excellence.

Business coach Stever Robbins wrote about leaders and managers awhile back on entrepreneur.com. Robbins says leaders are the heart of a business, motivating others to work toward a common goal. Managers, he says, are the brains of a business, establishing things like systems and operating procedures, focused more on the “things” side of the business, rather than the “people” side. But to be effective, most business owners and executives, Robbins says, need a mix of skills that reflect qualities of both leaders and managers. There’s also a practical reason: What organization has so many staff that some can focus exclusively on leading, while others concentrate only on managing? Certainly this is most true of small business owners who wear many different hats—among them, those of a leader and a manager.

A wsj.com leadership guide also provides some insights into the differences between leadership and management. Some key points:

    • Leadership and management are different but must go hand in hand.


    • When working with employees you need to be able to not just assign tasks but also to define the mission and purpose for them.


    • Part of the job is organizing and maximizing efficiency. But it’s also nurturing skills, developing talent and inspiring results.

Current thinking cautions against trying to separate leadership and management roles or trying to label people as strictly leaders or managers; it will just cause problems. Back in the late 80s, author Warren Bennis drew sharp distinctions between the two in his book, “On Becoming a Leader.” Bennis referred to managers as “copies,” “imitators” and those who are “classic good soldiers,” while leaders, he said, are “originals,” originators,” and those who are “his or her own person.” But with an evolving economy and the emergence of knowledge workers and massive changes in how companies are organized and operate, this line of thinking has fallen out of favor. It’s just too narrow and limiting.

In a fastcompany.com post based on his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, professor and author Robert Sutton, PhD, argues that although there are differences in the two roles, focusing on them is a really bad idea. Business owners or executives who see themselves as exclusively “visionary” or “big-picture thinkers” (leaders) often believe that understanding how things work and getting things done are best left to the “little people” (managers). This detached-from-reality mindset that can spell disaster and lead to poor decisions. Sutton says that those he admires the most have the ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture. After all, Steve Jobs was a true visionary. But he also spent a lot of time in Apple stores, tinkering with everything from shopping bags to colors and interested in how the tiniest of details were shaping the brand.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net