The Difference Between Management And Leadership

March 4, 2012

In the new chapter to the paperback edition of his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Bob Sutton asserts that there is a difference between management and leadership, but focusing on it is dangerous (p, 263). He concurs as I do with Warren Bennis that “managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.” Bob thinks this distinction is accurate; however, focusing on it is dangerous because:

“It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs – and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere “management work” best done by “the little people.” Even if left unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things.” (p. 264).

Bob’s concern about people considered leaders neglecting the art and discipline of managing details is certainly warranted. Any vision, strategy, or decision – no matter how brilliant it sounds – is worthless if it can’t be efficiently implemented.

My concern is about the larger number of folks in our organizations that implement these decisions that either fail or refuse to see themselves as critical to the process of leadership. Leadership might be in the job descriptions of those that hold c-suite jobs, but it’s the responsibility of everyone in the organization. I’ve worked with too many people over the years that behaved as if they were “little people” and effectively shirked their responsibility to care about anything larger than their proximal role in the organization.

The best leaders continually pursue skills that enhance their mastery of management efficiencies. The best managers always realize that effectiveness is the real goal, and efficiency is necessary but not sufficient for sustaining a healthy organization. The best organizational citizens understand how their roles are interdependent with every other role in the organizational leadership process.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Comments (14)

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  1. Bruce Lynn says:

    Now you’re talking my language! 😉

    Leadership vs. Management. What a rich topic. I also like the quote often attributed to Bennis (but actually Bennis took it from Peter Drucker) about doing the the ‘right things’ and ‘things right’.

    I do think that ‘Leadership’ has assumed a sort of cachet, while ‘Management’ is often derided. Curiously, one can make a serious case that the majority of problems in the world today are from ‘Leadership’ gone amok without the effective counterbalance of good ‘Management’.

    I applaud work by people like you and Sutton who are trying to put more balance and perspective into the concept of Leadership and Management.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Bruce. There are a slew of folks that pan the Bennis/Drucker take on leadership and management. I’ve always found it very helpful, as one that studies this stuff, tries to practice it, and is still knee deep in the organizational life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  2. Shane says:


    I agree with both you and Bob. To me, Leading and Managing are two sides of the one coin that is Leading. You cannot do one effectively without the other. As you said, the greatest Strategy will fail without proper implementation.

    As a Leader, if you are not aware or interested in the detail, you have abdicated from a large part of your role and therefore your organisations (and your) success is dependent on the ability of others that you are now ignoring.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Shane. You have to be able to wear both hats effectively. I see these as roles, skills, and not separate people. Thanks for sharing. Bret

  3. Bret.
    I agree that it IS dangerous to create this Dichotomy. Working with organizations I often hear things like ‘we need more leaders here’ while the management side of things gets ignored and the people in subordinate positions are blamed. Then told they have to ‘act like leaders’. Personally I wish we would all just stop creating and discussing this topic all together. I have been describing the idea of Managerial-Leadership meaning that leadership is a part and is exercised through your work…And the work of a competent manager is to be accountable for the output of subordinates. That includes many things we would typically attribute to ‘leadership’. Also (based on my research of Elliott Jaques) Managerial-Leadership has different competencies than Pastoral-Leadership, Familial-Leadership, Sports-Leadership, etc… For example you current Manager is totally incompetent as a manager and you see him as a poor leader BUT he is an amazing Soccer Captain of you league and you see him as a great leader there. Did his personality suddenly change? NO different competencies and temperament are needed different roles.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    My concern is when people create this dichotomy via their own choices. I do think it’s a valuable conversation because I’ve worked with so many people that have over managed and under led their folks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  4. Mike Stay says:

    After years in management/leadership roles, to the above I can add that the obvious difference in definition between leadership and management can significantly blend in practice. All organizations have long and short term goals. The long term goals are mostly best served by focusing on leading while short term goals by focusing on managing. Lets not though forget that there is all sort of shades of long to short term goals and those are best served through a mix of leadership/management focus.

    That is to say that in order to be successful a leader/manager needs to be able to both lead and manage.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mike. I agree completely. Thanks for sharing. bret

  5. David Jardin says:


    Great post! After years of looking for something better, I finally came to appreciate the clarity and utility of the Drucker/Bennis explanation.

    As with the “strategy” vs. “tactic” debate, one without the other is useless.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, David. I too like the Drucker/Bennis explanation because it is simple, easy to remember. Because I can remember it, I can continually think about and evaluate it in the situations I find myself in. Thanks for sharing. Bret

  6. Greg Blencoe says:


    I’ve read many, many blog posts lately and your idea of the process of leadership is one of the most important things I have learned. I just love this mindset, because it means that everybody in the organization is viewed as important.

    There often seems to be a gap between executives and lower-level employees.

    Through their actions (not what they say), I believe a lot of executives communicate that lower-level employees aren’t that important. For example, they might not listen to their ideas/concerns, they might not praise their good work, they might not take the time to get to know them as people, etc.

    I think most executives would say they have an open-door policy. And they may tolerate employees coming up to their office and giving feedback. But how many executives actively seek out the opinions of lower-level employees, really listen, and then follow that up by possibly making any changes that are needed?

    On the other hand, lower-level employees often don’t seem to have a strong connection to the company. They are often there just to receive a paycheck and, as you mentioned, may not take responsibility for achieving the goals of the organization.

    While some employees won’t care regardless of how they are treated, I think more often than not this attitude is a result of lower-level employees feeling like they are not heard, not appreciated, etc.

    However, once they do feel heard, appreciated, etc., I think lower-level employees will be much more likely to embrace being a part of the process of leadership. And this is so important, because these employees are typically closest to the customer.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Well said, Greg! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  7. davidburkus says:

    A well stated case. I’ve always thought Bennis’ distinction was a little too simplistic, but maybe that was because received too much attention.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    the simplicity is why it is so good. You really have to think about it to understand what it means in practice, and because you can easily remember it, you are more likely to think about it while you are going about your daily organizational life. Thanks! Bret