The Difference between Leadership and Management

Management and leadership are not the same thing. In our experience with thousands of leaders over decades, the shift from management to leadership has not happened. The difference between leadership and management is massive, but evidently not clear enough. The vast majority of leaders out there have missed the boat, and continue to miss the boat. This is understandable though because even though the difference is massive, it is subtle at the same time and easy to miss.

How do we know that leaders have missed the boat?

Asking managers at all levels for their definitions of leadership is a large part of our daily bread. As an organisation, we have trained well over 50,000 leaders over the past 20 years that have so far comprised the 21st century. What we find, almost without fail, is that managers have the following view of leadership: “Leadership is about achieving results through people”.

It is not surprising that this is the case because this is the view still held by the majority of reputable institutions. If you google “definition of leadership”, you will find Forbes telling you that “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal”.

The Management Study Guide defines leadership as the “capacity to influence a group towards the realisation of a goal.” These definitions and definitions like this are what the vast majority of business schools accept as canon.

What is wrong with the common view of leadership?

No wonder global leadership is in such a questionable state. All of these definitions accept the same view. If you reduce all these definitions of leadership, you get:

Leadership is about achieving a result through people.

They use different words but they mean the same thing. They all understand leadership as being the art of getting people to do things to realise a goal or objective or result of some description.

The real problem with this understanding of leadership is that it reduces people to the level of things. This is diametrically opposed to the spirit of leadership. Leadership, more than anything else, is about uplifting the human spirit. Leadership has a nobility to it. It is meant to raise us up and make us better.

How does it reduce people to things?

When we say that leadership is about “achieving results through people”, we are saying that the end of leadership, the thing that leadership must bring about, is a result. This definition tells us that the whole point of leadership is achieving a goal, or brining about a result.

There is then the question of how the leader is to bring this about.  What is the means the leader will use to give us the result that we said is the point?  The definition tells us, the means is people. This definition says that leadership is about using people as the means to achieve a result/goal/objective as an end. In other words, 90% of the world is operating on the assumption that leadership is about using people as the means to being about our ends.

And herein lies the problem. Immanuel Kant, the eminent German philosopher, told us that we must at all times treat every human being as an end in themselves. When you treat people as a means to your end, you are reducing them to the level of a thing.

This is the essence of manipulation. The art of manipulation is about doing things to people that get them to do what you want them to do. Influencing people to do things for you is almost the definition of manipulation. Manipulation is perfectly okay when we are dealing with inanimate objects. It is questionable when we are dealing with people.

Can you see the difference between leadership and management?

Here is the real difference between leadership and management. Managers reduce people to the level of things, leaders do not. You can reduce people to the level of things but you can’t elevate things to the level of people. This is why you can sensibly say that you are going to manage a warehouse full of chairs. You cannot sensibly say that you are leading a warehouse full of chairs.

Leading, unlike managing, is exclusively limited to people. However, when we use people as the means in pursuit of our ends, we reduce them to the level of things. This can’t be legitimately called leadership, unless we want to accept that you can lead a warehouse full of chairs.

So, what is leadership?

Leadership uplifts so we better make sure that our definition of leadership does not reduce people to a means. We must make people the end in our definition. For leadership to be leadership, it must have people as the end. People are the point of leadership.

Using the exact same words we used in our previous definition, we end with a strange result when we just switch the means with the end. Doing this gives us this definition of leadership:

Leadership is about achieving people through results.

At first this strikes most people as a questionable use of English. It is not though; it is actually grammatically sound. Not only is it grammatically sound, it is actually a far more accurate definition of leadership than what you will be taught in a business school.

This is exactly what a coach does. No coach produces a result, it is the players that produce the result. This doesn’t mean that good coaches aren’t interested in the results. A good coach watches what the players are doing on the field, takes note of the results that they get, and uses this information to help them get better as players. Coaches quite literally use the result as the means to produce a player. The whole point of coaching is better players. The best coaches make this their end, they make it their job to improve players.

Any definition of leadership that adheres to this structure will work. You could say that leadership is about using tasks in order to bring out the best in people. You might say simply that leadership is the art of enabling people. Or you might say that leadership is about using a job in order to empower people. These make people the point, they make people the end. The agenda fundamentally is to do something for the people being led.

How does this play out in real life?

The difference between leadership and management can be re-stated like this. Managers produce results, using people. Leaders enable people, using tasks. The difference is in motive. The difference is in Intent. This difference plays out in a number of ways and at numerous levels in real life.

Governments that don’t look after their people

At a high administrative level, this difference can be seen in the way governments lead countries. It is easy to see how this plays out in government, at the level of state officials. Clearly, the job of leading a country is centrally concerned with ensuring the continued well being and flourishing of the citizens of the country. When those in positions of authority within government have this as their primary agenda, they can be genuinely called leaders.

However, when their energy is pointed towards any agenda other than this, they are not acting as leaders. There are a couple of ways this can happen. Firstly, government officials have a tendency to seek personal financial gain in place the well-being of the populace. This is the lowest form of failure.

Secondly, government officials are sometimes willing to sacrifice the common good to realise some grand vision. Famously, Louis the 14th of France partially precipitated the French Revolution by demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice the common good to bring about a glorious vision of France.

Leaders focus on process managers focus on results

The difference plays out in the day to day running of businesses and organisations. Given that the key difference between leadership and management is in motive or Intent, they can be best seen by looking at what the leader pays attention to. Your intentions drive your attention. What you find important defines what you give attention to.

Managers find results important so they will give this their full attention. They tend to be insensitive to the processes that has produced the result and measure performance solely on the result. Leaders have a more wholistic view of performance. Leaders understand that good results are the product of good process and that their job is about helping their people get better at their process.

Managers control, leaders empower

When your aim is to produce a result, you will have a tendency towards control. Control is what we do when we are trying to produce a predictable outcome. A manager therefore will not accept any independent thought and initiative and will personally retain as many decisions as possible. There will be a controlled, mechanical way in which tasks are handed out. Tasks will be set in order to ensure that they produce the required results.

Leaders however are willing to take a risk with the result. They will be willing to let their people make decisions, even if they are bad ones, in order to give them the opportunity to grow. This is because their primary goal isn’t producing results, it is improving their people. This does not mean once again that a leader should not have an eye on the results. Rather, a leader must not make results his primary deliverable.

Leaders care; managers don’t

If we say that a manager finds results important, this clearly means that a manager cares about results. The definition we discussed at the beginning of this article prescribes results as the end. If we are going to be faithful to that definition, we have to care about results and not care about people. After all, we do not invest in the means like we invest in the end. We don’t care about the means like we care about the end.

It is the critical hallmark of leadership that people are the end. This, therefore, means that leaders care about their people.

What actually sits at the heart of leadership is the concept of community. Communities are groups of people that all care about and look after one another. We have not viewed, and still do not view organisations as communities. We view them as profit producing machines.

No wonder then that we have incentivised managerial approaches to organisational hierarchy. Not only have we prioritised managerial approaches to hierarchy, we actually struggle to make sense of what leadership in its true sense would mean in a modern organisation. Leadership as a concept is best distilled outside of a modern organisational context. It is in the village elder or the leader of the community that we can find the glimmer of what leadership is truly about. We need to make collective work of re-introducing the genuine leadership into how we structure our economic institution.

The first thing we need to bear in mind however is that this is not a matter of getting rid of hierarchy. It is a matter of adjusting our intent and interrogating how adjustments in Intent should manifest in subtle shifts in the way we set up organisations and institutions.

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