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Leadership Versus Management

I threw the concept out at an All Hands Meeting about the differences between leadership and management.  I got this strange quizzical look from a few of the strong managers in the room.  I’ve seen that look many times over the past two decades from some

executives on my teams. 

I’ve noticed that when we have these kinds of conversations, it ends up with the suggestion that strong management is equated with strong leadership.  Or that success is equivalent to strong leadership.  And sometimes there’s a little resentment because of a hint that maybe strong management is a bad thing.  But, hey, some of my best friends are strong managers, and that’s not the point.  You can be successful if you’re strong in either of them, but in times of change, you need the right amount of both.  To do so, you need to understand the difference and have the right amount of both, not just to weather the storm but come out of it better as a person or as an organization. 

So, what is the difference anyway?  John P. Kotter defines the differences as follows:


· makes systems of people and technology work well day after day, week after week, and year after year.

· Planning, budgeting, organizing, and staffing

· Controlling and problem solving

· Taking complex systems of people and technology and making them run efficiently and effectively, hour after hour, day after day


· Creates the systems that managers manage and changes them in fundamental ways to take advantage of opportunities and avoid hazards

· Creating vision/strategy and communicating/setting direction

· Motivating action and aligning people

· Creating systems that managers can manage and transforming them when needed to allow for growth, evolution, opportunities, and hazard avoidance

How do you know you’re a strong leader but a weak manager?  You’d typically be charismatic and perhaps very innovative and creative.  But your career or the organizations you lead will be on the brink of chaos.  The same would hold if your organization had a plentiful amount of leadership but an insufficient amount of strong management competencies. Oh, yeah, you’d have lots of ideas but would seldom be able to get things done.

How do you know you’re a strong manager but a weak leader?  Well, typically, you’d have a track record of success.  But, your career would fizzle out over time and the organizations you lead would have difficulty adapting to most changes.  An organization with an insufficient amount of strong leadership competencies would be bureaucratic and controlling and would have a difficult time adjusting to changes in the environment. 

CIOs or those who lead technical people or organizations would not be surprised to find an abundance of strong managers in their organizations.  Network, operations, and data center managers create a legacy of success based on their ability to manage technology effectively and deliver reliable, consistent, and available services to customers day after day.  Yet, these heroes of today often become the dinosaurs of tomorrow when they fail to navigate the rough waters in the sea of changes in customer demand or the technology environment.   

But, getting the right balance of management and leadership in technical organizations is a significant leadership hill to climb.  Paul Glen, in Leading Geeks, talks about the unique challenge of leading these technical management superstars:

“Geeks’ independence combines with their tendency to make merciless judgments of leaders to make it difficult to earn their respect.  Things can be especially tough for leaders without a technical background since geeks place a high value on technical prowess as a qualification for leadership.”

It’s no wonder that successful technical organizations have difficulty recognizing leadership competencies and their value.  But, failure to do so will ultimately end up in organizational demise.  In the public sector, this translates to a lack of stakeholder support, lack of relevance, and ultimately to mission failures. 

Ending here on a quote that aptly describes management versus leadership:

The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything or nothing.

– Lady Nancy Astor

We avoid those dangers with the right balance of both management and leadership.


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