What is the difference between management and leadership?

I have been talking to people about “leading project teams” and “leading change”, so the topic of leadership and management has come up a few times.

There seems to be a common view that leadership is better than management, but I am not so sure. I believe leadership and management are a little different and it is worth differentiating between them but one without the other is like a yin without a yang … it leads to disorder and suffering instead of balance and harmony.

Here is what I think –


  • Leadership is about understanding where you are today, deciding where you want to go and then building a great team who can tell you how to get there;
  • Management is about efficiently allocating resources and building effective systems and processes that make it easy for the team to get where they want to go; and
  • Work is what the team do in order to make the most of where they are today and getting to where they want to be tomorrow.


A great leader without a good enough manager will align the team to a vision. But, the team will work toward that vision with increasing hard work and frustration until the lack of resources, the ineffective systems and the constant obstacles wear them down to the point they no longer believe in the vision.

A great manager will build effective processes that support the team in delivering value. But without adequate leadership the efficient completion of the organisation’s processes will become the team’s purpose. The team will lose site of the value they should be creating and either become irrelevant or lose faith with the organisation because they do not see value and meaning in their work.

But worse – an awful leader will inspire the team to pursue a vision that is either inherently evil or is a flawed vision that will eventually end in disaster. In this case a good manager actually speeds the doom the leader is encouraging. With an awful leader, it would be better to have terrible and ineffective management.

And also very bad – an awful manager will manage resources in a way that creates silos or internal competition and implement systems and processes that make it impossible to see or question the direction the company is pursuing. So while the company has no vision, the people in the team will be speeding along oblivious to that lack of vision.

My conclusion

It does not matter if you are a great leader or a great manager, as long as the team has access to both.

  • A great boss will either be
    • A great leader with good management support;
    • A great manager who allows others to challenge and create the vision for the team; or
    • Lucky enough to have a good opportunity and a good enough team and be just good enough at both leadership and management for the team to succeed.
  • A great team member will either;
    • Make the most of having a great boss;
    • Find ways to support the boss by mitigating his or her weaknesses to create a “virtual, federated boss”; or
    • Realise that they have the wrong boss and do something about it.

Thus my final conclusion is mundane but simple – you would probably be able to do better work if you had a better boss, but you don’t. Given the boss you have … and the person you are … then it is up to you to work out what to do about it.

On the other hand if you are a boss, the team could probably do a lot worse if you left and got replaced with someone else. But they haven’t got someone else, they have you. So it is your job to find out how to improve their journey from here, not to tell them that you worked hard to earn your stripes.

Either way – it is not about whether a single person is a good enough leader or good enough manager to make the team great, but whether the team have access to enough leadership and management from somewhere for them to be great.

Success comes from what you do next with the resources you have now, not by celebrating or complaining about how you got to where you are.

Therefore both leadership and management are about learning from the past, surviving today and making tomorrow better than today. In that respect there is actually no difference between the two.




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