There is a real difference between managing and leading. John Kotter, leadership professor at Harvard University, is quoted in The Guardian as arguing that: “Management is a set of processes that keep an organisation functioning. They make it work today – they make it hit this quarter’s numbers. The processes are about planning, budgeting, staffing, clarifying jobs, measuring performance, and problem-solving when results did not go to plan.”

Kotter contrasts this to leadership, which “is about aligning people to the vision, that means buy-in and communication, motivation and inspiration.” A manager oversees the current process whereas a leader wants to create the future.

There is a clear difference, but the problem with the comparison between management and leadership is that it is like comparing engineering and architecture. The concepts are indeed different, and it is because they have different applications. So why are these two different concepts often thought of as one? Peter Drucker, who at the very least contributed to how we view management today, and who is arguably the founder of it, wrote in 1973, “in modern society there is no other leadership group but managers. If the managers of our major institutions, and especially of business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.” Fifty years later and that statement still rings true – of course there are exceptions, but the administration of businesses and government departments has evolved, at least in the West, to an environment that is managed by skilled and educated people, who are managing skilled and educated people.

These people might be called ‘knowledge workers’, a term coined by Drucker in 1959, referring to workers whose main capital is knowledge; their ability coupled with their experience and education. There are more knowledge workers now more than ever before thanks to education and training far superior, and far more accessible, than in the 1950s or 1960s. Knowledge workers are not always the managers, but they often present a different leadership challenge; already highly educated and often specialised, both knowledge workers and non-knowledge workers seem to be becoming more specialised and less receptive to a general up-and-at-em leadership. They often need subtle management who understand their roles and can perhaps engage with them technically. Drucker said, too, that “A manager is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge.”

Whereas a blue collar worker fifty years ago would likely have had a far less privileged education than their manager, or certainly their line manager’s manager, entry-level employees today might have a better education than many of their superiors. Perhaps with a much more educated workforce the need for traditional leadership has largely been disposed of and whilst I don’t believe we’ve found ourselves in an era of workplace stability – innovation is changing how we operate all the time – the process of getting things done is more streamlined than ever. Technology and trial-and-error over the years has created systems of process and power that are well understood by many.

There is an organisational need for conformity. That is no criticism; it is necessary, and the bigger the organisation the more regulated leadership has to be – otherwise ambitious innovation and leadership will be coming from everywhere, pulling in every direction. With this conformity knowledge workers present us with a flatter hierarchy, and departments and teams that have a strong sense of direction, and a clear understanding of how they and their organisation works.

So whether you’re about to set up your company and lead a dozen employees on a unique path, or you’re in a company of 150 000 and you’ve got seven people to manage, the standards and ethics of how you interact with others really have to come from you. The comparison between leadership and management is quite tangible, but in my opinion the traits of leadership, found in both these roles, is not.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Ray Croc, and it applies to leaders and managers. “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.”

For more on leadership, take a look at our complete Guide to Leadership Skills.



Drucker, Peter F., Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 1973

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