Leadership vs. management

May 25, 2012

Leadership is one of the most written-about topics – personal leadership, business leadership, political leadership, etc. Yet, in these turbulent times, we are more in need of leadership than we have been for a long time. So perhaps one more opinion about leadership will not be considered one too many.

I’d like to focus on what leadership is and how it differs from management.

Let me start with a definition and then share the thinking that lies behind it.

Leadership is the act of changing the state of the world by inspiring people to do what they’ve never done before.

First the easy part. Leadership requires more than one person. You are not a leader if you don’t have followers. Following someone is not the same as complying or obeying. Compliance and obedience can be coerced but following is a choice. Leaders, therefore, must inspire people to act.

Now comes the less obvious part. I think leadership is inherently a creative act. Why? Well imagine that you and a friend are walking to a restaurant that you’ve both been to together many times before. If your friend happens to be walking slightly behind you, is he following you? Of course not. People do not need a leader to lead them someplace they’ve already been. Followership and, therefore, leadership can only exist in the unknown – when a person doesn’t know where to go, how to get there, or even that they ought to go anywhere at all.

Leaders lead their followers to previously unknown places – or to known places in previously unknown ways. In doing so, they change the state of the world. They create a new awareness, a new understanding, a new belief in what is possible. Most importantly, they create a new reality by inspiring their followers to do things – not simply to think in a new way but to actually do things they haven’t done before.

Management is an entirely different phenomenon. I define management as:

The discipline of achieving results by operating effectively and efficiently within existing paradigms.

The key difference is that management is all about the known. Management is about doing something you already know you need to do, with resources that you already know you have, in a game that you already know how to play.

To be clear, both leadership and management are important. But I think it’s important that people understand the difference. Too often, people want to be known as leaders but are not prepared to do the hard work and take the risks of leading people into and through the unknown. The world does not need everyone to be a leader. But we definitely need our leaders to truly lead.

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