Management is Not Leadership

In today’s business world, most businesses are run by very competent people who are not necessarily the world’s best leaders. Most leaders are not Ghandi or Nelson Mandela but in my years of experience as a business consultant, I have observed that successful businesses seem to have a leadership team that as a group exhibits all the characteristics of a great leader. Very rarely do we find these characteristics in one person.

I recently read an article on leadership that I think could help further explain the leadership challenge. In his recent HBR article titled Management is Still Not Leadership, Dr. John Kotter, Konusuke Matshushita Professor at Harvard, explains that leadership and management are two different things, and that the obvious confusion around these terms usually cause misunderstandings and hinder businesses to achieve success.

With this emphasis, Dr. Kotter defines “management” as a set of well-known processes which helps an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well. Examples of such processes are planning, budgeting, staffing, problem solving, etc. On the other hand, leadership is a completely different thing. Leadership is about vision. It is about taking an organization into the future and finding the right opportunities to exploit for success. In simpler terms, leadership is about behavior while management is about processes.

Dr. Kotter highlights the mistakes we usually make in interchanging one term for the other and how these impact a business:

Mistake #1: People use the terms “management” and “leadership” interchangeably. This shows that they don’t see the crucial difference between the two and the vital functions that each role plays.

Mistake #2:: People use the term “leadership” to refer to the people at the very top of hierarchies. They then call the people in the layers below them in the organization “management.” And then all the rest are workers, specialists, and individual contributors. This is also a mistake and very misleading.

Mistake #3:: People often think of “leadership” in terms of personality characteristics, usually as something they call charisma. Since few people have great charisma, this leads logically to the conclusion that few people can provide leadership, which gets us into increasing trouble.

My experience is that it is crucial for business leaders to understand the difference between management and leadership, and to also focus on the latter, not only the former, so that wecan better prepare and position our businesses for success.This is summarized in this great quote from Kotter.

“Leadership is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior. And in an ever-faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy. The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous and it’s a recipe for failure.”Dr John Kotter. 2012

This quote by Kotter (taken from his HBR article) clearly defines what leadership should be. Aiming to create a few brilliant individual leaders to “carry the rest” is where many focus their efforts, however the “real change” happens by having good leaders throughout the different levels of your business.

My experience is that good business leadership is often about having a team with clear, shared goals and a common language and toolkit for planning, problem solving and decision making.  In organisations where we have focused on improving these skillsets there has been a massive payback in terms of sales, profits and employee satisfaction.

Give your team the tools and the language to make great leadership decisions and act on them – and you can’t go wrong.

The message: Don’t build a mediocre team led by a brilliant leader. BUILD A STRONG TEAM OF GOOD LEADERS.

Your thoughts?


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