Management vs Leadership, Part One

Sacred CowFor this post, I’d like to take a shot at a very sacred cow (at least for some folks) – management vs leadership. Frankly, I can already tell this is going to take more than one post, so let’s call this part one.

Personally, I’ve been talking about the topic of management vs. leadership for years, but I’m suddenly seeing a surge in the topic with some very good posts and even some of the dialogue in the comments section on my own rants.

So, let me ask you – what is the difference between management and leadership?

If you give me anything that sounds like “managers are bad and leader are good” I’m going to call BS on you.

Because that kind of pop industrial “insight” is about as worthless as they come. There are great managers and there are horrific leaders. We’ve all worked for them. So please don’t give me some tired recitation that leaders are somehow members of the Golden Age of Heroes (and yes, I just went comic book geek on you).

The next possible answer you’ll likely give me is some variation of Peter Drucker’s quote that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

I agree with that – to an extent. In other words, the concepts of management and leadership truly are different. And they are both centered on the act of “doing.” But pulling a quote from Drucker is still not sufficient for this discussion. Here’s why.

Management is about optimization and leadership is about transformation.

Think about that for a moment.

Good management – and great managers – focus on driving more efficiency and effectiveness into their process/team/organization. They seek out waste and try to elevate performance. At the end of the day, they are fundamentally optimizing how we work.

But they HAVE to do things right AND do the right things. Therefore, Drucker’s quote as the only point of definition is incomplete.

Bad ManagerYou cannot consider yourself a good manager if you make people do the wrong things in the right way. That is bureaucracy. That is insane. And that is why “management” often gets treated as the “lower” discipline.

But criticizing the concept of management because of crappy managers is like criticizing the profession of selling because of aggressive vacation time-share sales people.

Good management is absolutely critical because optimization is absolutely critical. There is nothing ignoble or inferior about management.

Then there is the idea of leadership.

As I said earlier, leadership is about transformation.

And that is an entirely different game.

Good leadership – and great leaders – focus on driving the organization into the unknown. Hopefully, because that is where the organization needs to go. It is Nokia transforming from the forest and power industry into cell phones. It is Apple transforming from personal computers into defining the very foundation of how entertainment is consumed. It is Microsoft transforming from the monster who thumps all competitors into the cloud-based partner that everyone will (hopefully) need. Leadership is willing to disrupt efficiency and effectiveness in order to achieve something new – and greater. At the end of the day, leaders fundamentally transform how we work.

But they still HAVE to do things right AND do the right things. It’s just different things than what managers have to do.

So, here is the real question for you…

Do you need to optimize or transform?

Small fireIf you are an individual contributor, keep your thinking small. Start a small fire. Pick something that you need to optimize or transform and then tackle it. Identify a personal process or a personal tool and make that the focus of your attention. Build momentum from this. Slowly create your own business case for bigger optimization/transformation.

If you are a senior leader (or even THE leader), start many small fires. Do not light one big fire. I have personally been a part of these kinds of attempts and they only make people run away. And I have the burn marks to prove it. Identify a collection of processes, tools, or even roles and start making incremental changes. Take a pilot approach. Learn from the small experience before sending it out to the larger organization. And slowly create your own business case for bigger optimization/transformation.

But be CRYSTAL CLEAR on what you are asking people to do. They MUST know if you are expecting optimization or transformation. Because if you allow any ambiguity on the overall objective, they will create their own definitions of success.

And optimize/transform the wrong things in the wrong way.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Published by timohai

Father, widower, leader, sales enablement pro

9 thoughts on “Management vs Leadership, Part One

  1. Thank you Tim. Great insights!
    Would it be fair to say that we always need both in ne person? Or maybe not depending on the size of the organization? If its large, then to each his or her role? If its small, you must be a manager-leader and leader-manager?
    Look forward to part two. 🙂

    1. Absolutely, yes. We need both skills, often in the same person. But then, now we are getting into part two…

  2. Hello Tim,
    Trust all is well.
    As usual I enjoy thoroughly your perspectives and ‘rants’ even more.
    Keep on churning out.
    And when do we see you in SA, my man?

    1. Dankie, may bru. And I am just now wrapping up a trip to SA now. I was literally thinking, “I MUST grab some time with Clive on my next trip.” September…

  3. So is it also fair to say while a manager may help eliminate bottlenecks a leader may transform that bottleneck into an entirely different opportunity? Example: I’m working with a supplier who’s specialty is “digital asset management” (for internal employees)…however, their core capability (sending digital assets to people” is at the core what I need right now as part of an overall sales enablement tool. They’re trying to provide us a DAM…I’m trying to get them to transform their DAM into a tool I can use to manage digital pieces with customers and prospects. After six-months; they’re seeing the light but are not committed at this point. Thoughts?

    1. I see that my reply did not get posted, Brian. My apologies.

      Yes, you are on track. The key is the outcome. If the outcome is something new and different, that is transformation. If the outcome is essentially a better version of itself, that is optimization.

  4. Hey Tim, hope you are doing well. I am doing a EdD program at USC and we were discussing this very topic last weekend, yeah and we did mention Drucker’s quote, and all the other soundbites that we’ve all heard…management bad, leadership good kind of discussion. This was a good read, I wish I had read it before my class. Thanks for continuing to challenge the status quo.

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