The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon ( said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

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