How often do you hear someone say, "I want to be a manager?" I doubt it happens often. You are more likely to hear someone express a desire to "lead" or "be a leader,", especially in Western societies. I've been there, and that's how I've responded when asked about the role I'd like to play. I never say, "I'd like to be a manager, please." It sounds dull and unimportant compared to being the "leader."
I conducted a LinkedIn poll that asked about the most important aspect of leadership - who the person was, what they focused on, or what they did. The responses heavily favoured the actions of a leader. Most of us receive leadership through the activities of the leader. We frame managers as doing and leaders as thinking. Kotter famously set this out in What Leaders Do (2001):
Management involves planning and budgeting. Leadership involves setting the direction.
Management involves organising and staffing. Leadership involves aligning people.
Management provides control and solves problems. Leadership provides motivation.
Why does this distinction between leadership and management exist in our literature? In particular, the idea that management is somehow a less important or valuable skill. I think, in part, this stems from the way leadership is studied and what the general focus is. Leadership studies often focus on larger organisations, sports teams and politicians, and they miss the everyday individuals who display leadership within an organisation. It might be good to speak about setting and establishing a vision and projecting leadership in a Fortune 500 company, where there is a clear division between leadership and management roles. Yet the reality for most of us is that we don't work at this scale and that our jobs require us to be both leaders and managers. There is a much blurrier line between these two sets of activities.
But does this make sense? There is a consensus in the literature that management and leadership activities are distinct. You can be in a management role and not demonstrate leadership, and you can be in a position without management responsibility and demonstrate leadership. This raises the question, what are we talking about when we ask if someone wants to be a "leader"? Do we mean a manager? And have we understood the distinction between leadership behaviours and management skills. Frequently, an individual will have to demonstrate both simultaneously to be successful in a role.
By focusing on the distinction between leadership and management, we tangle ourselves up and create a hierarchy of roles. The leaders are at the top, followed by managers who translate vision into reality. We need to flip this around; we realise leadership through management activity. Management activity gives the leader's vision structure, energy, and momentum. We cannot have leadership without management activity, and if someone in a position of responsibility wishes to exercise leadership, they must also develop their management skills.
Doing and translating a vision into tangible action allows leadership to function. There is no point in having a clear set of values and vision if you do not put the actions and processes in place as a manager to make that vision a reality. A great leadership vision may focus on inclusive values and talk about effectively delivering these values. Still, individual staff or those who follow the leader will not experience this emerging reality without a structure that offers them.
Consider a formative experience from my early career. Working in the South Sudanese Ministry of Finance, the government and international community put in a lot of time and effort to set up a new financial management system. There was a clear vision for the design and what it should achieve. Yet, the management practices of the Ministry were such that the system would never have the chance to full function. The willingness and ability to accomplish the vision weren't there. The management system to provide control and provide organisational structure weren't present. It might be argued that the wider vision for Ministry under various Ministers never fully aligned with the more limited vision of the financial management system.
By regularly presenting leadership and management as concepts in opposition to each other rather than as a complementary set of skills that, when applied effectively, mutually reinforce each other. It's better to think of them as tools in a toolbox that individuals can use depending on what they are trying to achieve. For example, this excellent blog by TK presents an amazing example of leadership and calls for the death of leaders. The example cited is that of a janitor working in a hospital during covid, who demonstrates leadership to develop a better way of keeping people safe in the hospital setting. They showed leadership behaviours here because they already had the management tools required to deliver on their identified actions. This example is important because it helps us move away from the idea that leadership is one act and management another.
We can begin to think more clearly about what each tool will achieve if we see leadership and management as complementary tools that need to be deployed thoughtfully depending on the situation and often reinforce each other. If leadership is about setting and defining the vision, management is about the routine for tracking progress toward that vision and measuring its completion/achievement.
It is past time to stop viewing leadership and management as distinct roles.