Why is it so hard to differentiate leadership from management?

Despite many valiant attempts to separate leadership and management, most people equate them or mix them up in one way or another. The problem is that we think of the person in charge when trying to separate leadership from management. This is like trying to differentiate sales from marketing by observing an entrepreneur who runs a small business and personally handles all aspects of sales and marketing. It’s easy to separate these functions in a large organization if for no other reason than because they are carried out by different departments. But suppose you’re a small business owner speaking to a customer about your latest product. Are you engaged in sales or marketing? We can’t tell by observing you. We would need to know your intentions, whether you were trying to build a brand or sell your product to this customer. But then, perhaps you are doing both at the same time.

So, where should we start in our efforts to differentiate leadership from management? For some leadership thinkers, it is all a matter of style. A leader is inspiring or transformational while a manager is controlling or transactional. For others, it is a matter of function. Leaders focus on change while managers preserve the status quo and “keep things ticking over.” Either way, management is a very limited, rather negative, function in the view of most leadership thinkers. As the world becomes more complex, however, we need greater specialization. As it is, leadership is overburdened and bloated while management is virtually sidelined. We need to upgrade management to give it a greater share of the work and a more constructive role to play in modern organizations.

Consider the journey metaphor as used by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge. For them, leaders take their followers on a journey. One useful feature of this metaphor is that it prompts us to realize that a journey has two phases. First, followers need to be sold on the merits of undertaking the journey and, second, they need to reach the destination.

Now, we have a simple opening to differentiate leadership from management. We could say that leadership sells the tickets for the journey while management drives the bus to the destination. This move doesn’t preclude the occasional need for further injections of leadership at times during the journey if followers start to wonder why they are on this trip. Nor does it rule out one person carrying out both functions.

Crucially, however, if leadership merely sells the tickets for the journey, it’s not involved in coordinating or facilitating reaching the destination. Further, management now has a much bigger role to play. The first journey to the moon, for instance, is much more complex than merely preserving the status quo or “keeping things ticking over.” Execution of complex journeys calls for sophisticated skills, not only of coordination, but also of motivating people. And if we throw out the style approach to differentiating leadership from management, we’re free to say that both can be inspiring. We just need to say that an inspiring leader moves us to do something we wouldn’t otherwise do, like undertake this challenging journey, and an inspiring manager inspires us to put our backs into reaching the destination.

Examples of Leadership Without Management


To strengthen our case for restricting leadership to selling the tickets for the journey, we need to find examples where leadership is shown to a group of people but without the person showing it having anything to do with execution and without even being recognized as the group’s leader, even informally.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led that organization to rule such discrimination unconstitutional.
  • Mahatma Gandhi’s protests led Britain to grant independence to India.
  • Jack Welch’s requirement that all GE businesses be first or second in their markets led other companies around the globe to follow his example.
  • Green leaders such as Al Gore could have a leadership impact on communities in far-flung places that he has never visited.
  • A front-line knowledge worker convinces top management to adopt a new product thereby showing bottom-up leadership.
  • Apple led the way for Microsoft in developing the graphical user interface.


These examples of leadership share three critically important features:

  • The leaders were not even members, let alone in charge of, the groups that followed.
  • They had no involvement in managing the implementation of their proposals.
  • Their leadership was based on pure influence, not decision making.


These features are vitally important because they illustrate how leadership is possible in situations where those showing it have no managerial authority or position within the affected groups. Their leadership amounted to showing or promoting a better way, not to making decisions, either for or with the affected groups. In each case, leadership amounted to no more than selling the tickets for a journey. Leadership stopped once the tickets were bought. Those who signed up for the journey managed getting to the destination on their own.

Actually, the same is true of leading by example. Suppose you’re an exceptionally good retail sales associate and you’ve just joined a new retail store where the sales and customer service skills of your colleagues are not even in your league. Suppose, without attempting to have a leadership impact on your new colleagues, you simply go about serving customers as you have always done. You’re so much more successful in winning sales that your colleagues gradually start following your example. So, you have shown leadership by example without explicitly taking charge, organizing or directing the efforts of your colleagues. Furthermore, suppose you are quite disorganized and completely uninterested in being a manager because you enjoy selling so much. Thus, you may never be in charge of a team or even recognized as an informal leader within one (bearing in mind that an informal leader in the conventional sense is someone who is granted a certain ongoing authority by a team to make decisions for it and direct its efforts to some extent). As a result, your leadership is simply an influence process. It has nothing to do with facilitating a journey, nothing to do with managing others and nothing to do with execution.

The Bottom Line

The most important form of leadership in this discussion is bottom-up leadership. Organizations that compete on the basis of rapid innovation desperately need to foster more of this type of leadership. But, the only way to make sense of such leadership is to see it as doing nothing more than selling the tickets for a journey. After all, front line knowledge workers would not be recognized as even the informal leader, in the conventional sense, of the senior management team. And, the latter might manage the implementation of the knowledge worker’s ideas through other people if they don’t see this employee as an effective manager of people or projects.

Leadership and management are clearly differentiated in this way, even if one person carries out both functions. However, it is quite possible to operate in one function and not the other. By getting rid of the totally dysfunctional style approach to differentiating leadership and management, we are also free to say that leadership does not need to be inspiring or visionary. It can be factual or evidence-based, as it often is in technical or scientific organizations, such as R & D or health care. We have backed ourselves into a dead end by requiring leaders to be inspiring. The only reason this way of thinking developed is because of our tendency to think in binary terms. The early history of writing on leadership and management talked about task versus people styles which later morphed into transactional versus transformational.

In conclusion, leadership is an influence process that shows or promotes a better way. This means it has nothing to do with making decisions for the follower group. Management works through two processes: decision making and facilitation. This means that management can be strategic, not merely operational. Any strategic decision is a management decision, by definition. Leaders promote new strategies; managers decide on them. Also, using facilitative skills in brainstorming sessions, managers can preside over a very innovative, rapidly changing organization. So much for preserving the status quo or just “keeping things ticking over.” Leadership, however, does not decide or facilitate. It promotes new ideas, challenges the status quo and shows the way to a better future.

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