Do Leaders and Managers Really Do Anything Different?

I’ve expressed my annoyance over the supposed leader vs. manager dichotomy elsewhere, seeing it largely as nothing more than a rhetorical sleight of hand on the part of those who try to pass themselves off as “leaders.” A recent post over at Harvard Business Review confirms some of my suspicions about the meaninglessness of the division:

Business people and business theorists love to draw distinctions between management and leadership. They tell us that “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing” and “management is administration, but leadership is innovation.”

Management, we seem to think, is what we need to do, but leadership is what we want to do.

This is a conundrum that many of us describe, but is it real? Are leadership and management fundamentally different roles in practice? Or do they simply require us to focus on different things?

Looking at the answers given by interviewees who were themselves leaders in various organizations, the author found that the distinction had more to do with focus or emphasis than any real difference:

For example, interviewees often mentioned the character of the leader and the positive effects that her character and behaviors can have on her followers. When talking about management, they focused on the behaviors of the manager in terms of the objectives of efficient delivery of performance and the successful achievement of results. Moreover, management behaviors dominantly center on the manager: gaining trust, being accountable, being optimistic, being visible, and providing recognition and reward. Leadership behaviors focus on the staff: trust people, engage people, motivate and encourage people.

While me may “think of managers [as] having a different focus from leaders,” the “distinction blurs significantly when we look at the daily activities of these people in charge. The majority of the activities described were very similar, or even identical — delegating, learning, motivating, and so on.” The author concludes by asking, “So, are leadership and management different in practice?” In short, no:

I’d suggest that they aren’t that different in terms of how they actually play out in organizations. Certain behaviors and activities are common to the effective demonstration of both leadership and management. The crucial difference – maybe the only difference — is the focus of the person carrying them out. Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management; but what you’re actually doing may not be that different.