The Difference Between Managing and Leading

I’ve written about this topic before and since old habits are hard to break I feel a need to continuing writing about it. 

I had the opportunity to spend some time with a long-time friend recently. He is the former CFO of a Fortune 1000 company and the former CEO of a Fortune 500 company. As the conversation often does it turned to various leadership topics. 

He mentioned how the difference between managing and leading was really just a “mirage” and that in fact, there was no difference at all. At first I thought he must be pulling my leg, then I thought he must just be trying to provoke me. Then I finally realized why it was a good idea that he retired when he did.

Believing that managing and leading are one in the same is very, very out-dated thinking. You manage “stuff.” You lead people.

Stuff includes facilities, processes, inventory, capital equipment, and financial matters to name a few. You apply rules and regulations to stuff. If you’re doing something to improve your infrastructure or balance sheet that is most likely managing. 

Only when you’re doing something to improve your people is it truly leading. New computers for your business is NOT leadership. New software is NOT leadership. New vehicles for the sales team is NOT the same as leading your sales team. 

Investing yourself in the future success of the PEOPLE in your organization is leading. People require guidelines, structure, vision, and accountability to succeed. People need someone to care about them as people, not as “human capital.” People need to know they matter to an organization and that what they do makes a difference. They don’t need more rules, policies, and regulations.

Every organization needs both managers and leaders. Sometimes those two very different skill sets can belong to the same person. It should however never be assumed that because someone is a skilled manager that they are or will become a skilled leader. 

It should also never be assumed that because someone is a highly skilled and respected leader that they are automatically a skilled manager.  

Here’s why I believe that it is so important to understand that there is clear difference between these two skills sets: when both skill sets are not present within an organization then the growth of the organization is limited.  

Good organizations understand the difference between managing and leading. Growing organizations will not sacrifice one for the other. Great organizations work strategically to build both. 

Which kind of organization is yours? 

33 thoughts on “The Difference Between Managing and Leading

  1. Great points. Reminds me of Stephen Covey’s “Efficient with things, effective with people,” from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    1. Thanks Willis, it’s easy to forget a company just uses the “stuff” to support the people. It’s the people who make an organization what it is, not the “stuff.”

      1. So true.

        From: LeadToday Reply-To: LeadToday Date: Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 5:56 PM To: Willis Turner Subject: [New comment] The Difference Between Managing and Leading Steve Keating commented: “Thanks Willis, it’s easy to forget a company just uses the “stuff” to support the people. It’s the people who make an organization what it is, not the “stuff.””

  2. Great thought here Steve. You succintly stated the difference “You manage stuff, but you lead people”.

  3. Thank you, Steve, for making a clear distinction between the two. Equating management and leadership is to the detriment of both. And it’s very disheartening to me when people insinuate that I am not a leader simply because it doesn’t say “manager” on my business card.

    1. Wonderful point! As John Maxwell says, leadership is about disposition, not position. No title in the world can make someone a leader, only followers can do that.

  4. Great email, Steve. I posted a link to my LinkedIn page with the following commentary. Your perspective on this thought would be welcome!

    This is an intriguing article by Steve Keating. He makes a great point that organizations need both leaders and managers. Being a good leader does not infer managerial skills, nor the opposite.

    I would further say that to be a good manager, you do need leadership skills. The degree and quality of leadership skills required by a Front Line Manager are different than those required by a CEO, but they are definable and necessary.

    In life we can have great leaders that do not have managerial skills, but in organizations the magic happens when people are great leaders AND great managers.

  5. Why do we keep on talking about if someone is a manager or a leader? In the real world leaders have to manage and managers have to lead.
    This is, to me at least, always a matter of results and using the best practices, towards people and “stuff”, to maximize results.
    The practices or behaviors we have to show to maximize results are always said to be behaviors of leaders but the world is neither black nor white.
    Let´s think, at the same time, well about our people and also the results we are after, using best possible practices, and then we don´t have to spend more energy on discussing if someone is a leader or a manager.

    1. Actually in the “real” world as you describe it managers often don’t lead. Most, but not all leaders, manage.

      It would be wonderful if everyone could do both but sadly the skill sets are vastly different and not everyone can do both.

      You’re of course right that things would be much better if they could.

  6. I concur. Leaders must lead and appoint Assistant and Deputy Chiefs to manage. From the past into the 21st Century it is Law Enforcement Leadership 101. As the Police moves to engage, arrest and/or eliminate the advancing heavily Armed Terrorist’s cells in America. The Armed street gangs, Armed organized criminal gangs, Armed narco gangs, Armed cartel gangs, the surprise intruder active mass shooter, with the availability of firearms, grenades, explosives and heavy body armor to the terrorists, criminal elements and the emotionally/mentally ill.

    Proactive, effective, humane and strong Leadership is needed now more than ever before as Law Enforcement moves with the Federal and State Agencies to address these current issues. To protect the communities and provide safety to the schools and the children.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think the key word you used was proactive. Leaders don’t sit back and wait. The create the future and are prepared to deal with what happens before it happens. It’s why authentic leadership requires vision. I appreciate your viewpoint and comment. Thanks again!

  7. Very true
    Not many really understand this. They have heard of it, they know it, but cant really apply it to real life situations.
    One vital aspect mentioned in this article is

    People need someone to care about them as people, not as “human capital.” People need to know they matter to an organization and that what they do makes a difference.

    This is important. if they believe that they are being cared or trained or their skills are being enhanced purely with the selfish interest of direct or indirect ‘benefit to the organisation’ their motivation is diluted.

    A subject that needs to be paid more attention and deliberated upon — and UNDERSTOOD

    1. I agree with your comment 100%. As John Maxwell says, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. If we believe that we are being “used” we resist and resistant people will not commit to a leader.

  8. It is true that leader and manger are two different things but I find that many management schools do not know and have special programme on leadership while they teach only managing.

    1. You’re correct that many people still do not realize the difference in skill sets. I think that’s because some people do have both and just don’t separate out the two different activities.

  9. Unfortunately you have provided a partial definition of leadership. Leadership is first and foremost about defining direction. Leaders by definition point the way. it is about defining and living out values.
    After a worthy direction is determined it is about enlisting people to that vision and then teaching, nurturing and developing people. When the first part of this definition is left out, all you have is a cheerleader, rallying the troops and urging them onward when no one is clear where we are headed or what success looks like.
    Leadership ultimately provides the “heart” through which management occurs and it provides the core to which all management actions should be aligned. That is why managers who are not leaders become bureaucrats.

    1. I can agree with some of what you said but I would hope leaders don’t point the way. Authentic leaders SHOW the way by going there first.

      You can just tell people the vision and then tell them to go there. You must go there and help them get there as well.

  10. In my view, and I probably read this somewhere years ago so I apologize to whoever inspired my thoughts – leaders are more visionary and motivating – actually caring about substance while seeing a bigger picture, where managers focus more planning, efficiency, form and process, and ensure policy is followed.

    There is no doubt that many leaders are good managers and thankfully many managers have the ability to lead. People simply aren’t exclusively just one or the other. Thank God.

  11. I am not a manager in my organization but I do have strong organizational and leadership skills. I usually get called out a lot for taking matter outside my own power and going the extra mile, into leading others, motivating and offering my best quality of work to our customers. Do you think , professionally and personally I am doing the right thing?

    1. Yes you are. Leading from the middle, without a title or position will always cause an increased level of tension. You’re eventually be recognized for your efforts.

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