Managing is Not the Same as Leading

leadership-versus-managementHere is my simple concept on the difference between managing and leading: if you’re doing something for your business it’s managing, if you’re doing something for your people it’s leading.

That’s a pretty simple concept … in writing. The challenge for business the world over is that it’s not such a simple concept in practice.

In practice it gets kind of messy. Here’s a leadership fact for you to consider: it’s seldom the followers who make this mess, it’s almost always the person in the leadership position.

The follower “knows” if something benefits them or not and if their perception happens to be wrong that’s still not a follower mess, that’s just a different leadership mess.

Which brings us to one Marissa Mayer. Her leadership “style” is now being described as  unorthodox. That’s a pretty generous description. The reality is that it’s really not leadership in the truest sense of the word. It is a management style and not necessarily a good one at that.

It looks like she is at least a bit of a micro-manager, one who has yet to learn to trust her team. Early indications seem to be that she has a rather narrow view of the type of individual that can bring value to Yahoo. Then of course there is that whole “working from home” thing.

The working from home edict, or more accurately, working from the office only edict, is where things get messy. While it would be easy to describe it as a bold leadership move it not only isn’t bold, it isn’t leadership at all. It is a management decision that reflects the limited leadership currently at the helm. It is a decision that says the leader has very limited influence and one that admits the influence is so limited that it can only happen face-to-face. It is a decision that uses a hatchet rather than a scalpel to address an emotional subject. It is a management decision that imposes a view rather than a leadership decision that inspires a view.

It might even be an outstanding management decision but again, it isn’t leading. By all accounts Marissa Mayer is a very smart person, more than capable of managing even a company of Yahoo’s size and diversity. A person of her managerial skills should be able to slow the decline of the company and even provide several quarters of profitable results.


Companies and organizations are managed to stability, they are led to growth. That’s why I believe the distinction between managing and leading is an important one.

Managing improves the company today, leading improves the company tomorrow and many more tomorrows after that. Managing improves the company’s processes and systems. Leading improves the company’s people. It’s the people who grow a company or organization, not processes and systems.

Every company needs both skilled managers and inspirational leaders. People in leadership positions can hold the false belief that they are one and the same. Authentic leaders know better. They know it’s possible to be both manager and leader but it’s not possible to use one set of skills to do it.

Time will tell if Marissa Mayer made a good management decision with the new work from the office policy. What history has already shown us is that it is a poor leadership decision.


14 thoughts on “Managing is Not the Same as Leading

    1. Thanks Brian, I am a bit passionate about this subject since I believe managed people comply while people who are led commit.

      A huge difference between committed people and compliant people.

  1. Here’s your winning point Steve: “Companies and organizations are managed to stability, they are led to growth. ”

    My hope is that managers continue to embrace leadership as part of their job. When they try to manage without inspiring, using great people skills, and tapping foresight, they don’t manage to stability they manage to decline.

    Many thanks for this post and encouraging discussion!
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

    1. Thanks Kate, you’re right of course, there really isn’t such a thing as managing to stability, it truly is managing to decline. I appreciate your comment.

  2. Steve, I agree with the main point of your article, leadership is not the same as management. I even agree with your distinction between process and people. However, I disagree in your observations about Marissa Mayer. In order to lead, she has to have a team to lead and in her short tenure she has discovered that her team was not doing so well from remote locations. It took a great act of leadership to make the call to bring them back in house so that she might begin the process of retooling the model.

  3. An organization more than managers need more leaders. To inspire one another to perform their best. Im the one to think that a masters degrees and tons of years of experience might help you grow but does not define you as a leader. A leader needs heart, loyalty and be a servant to his followers

Leave a Reply