Leadership is not Superior to Management We Must Lead and Manage Well
Was Lincoln a manager or a leader? How about Napoleon? Or Alexander the Great? Martin Luther King? Howard Schultz? Or Winston Churchill?
When I first asked these questions myself, I instinctively felt it would be insulting to call these great leaders managers. It seems in our modern leadership culture that manager has become a dirty word. In this article, I examine the leadership vs management doctrine and articulate a few points to disprove the supposition that leadership is better than management.
I came of age as a leader under the popular premise that management is less desirable, and leadership is coveted. Countless speakers, books, and articles argue this point. While I comprehend the position, I have developed a deeper understanding of this difference and believe we must resist the assertion that leadership is better than management.
Current Leadership vs Management Doctrine
The most popular leadership doctrine at this time presupposes that:
- Managers focus on tasks — Leaders elevate people
- Managers worry about details — Leaders think of the big picture
- Managers follow processes — Leaders improve processes
- Managers execute plans — Leaders create visions
- Managers have short range perspective — Leaders have foresight
- Managers deal with behaviors — Leaders understand emotions and motivations
- Mangers are reactive — Leaders are proactive
The theory that leadership is superior to management is supported by the likes of Inc.com, Forbes, and many others, claiming that for best results, you must lead, not manage. Let me share with you why this reasoning is flawed. I believe it can be better understood from a different perspective.
Is management bad, even according to these descriptions? I say no. Is it bad to focus on details? No. Is following a process bad? No. Is being reactive to certain situations bad? No. What is bad, is to presuppose that these are only traits of managers. To be effective, we must both manage and lead. Leaders and managers must:
- Focus on tasks AND elevate people
- Worry about details AND think of the big picture
- Follow processes AND improve processes
- Execute a plan AND create a vision
- Have short range perspective AND have foresight
- Deal with behavior AND understand emotions and motivations
- Be reactive to some situations AND proactive with others
The real problem with the current doctrine elevating leadership over management is found in the way these words are being redefined.
We shouldn’t redefine words.
We must not redefine words. When someone says managers do this and that, and leaders do something else altogether, he/she is redefining the words manager and leader. As a society we have agreed that the authority to define words belongs to the dictionary.
In searching popular dictionaries, nowhere do I find the distinction between the word leader and manager to be defined the way popular leadership teaching is currently explaining the difference. Here is how the major dictionaries define the two words:
Manager: a person who conducts business or household affairs
Leader: a person who leads (lead: to guide on a way, especially by going in advance)
Manager: a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff
Leader: a person who commands a group, organization, or country
As you see the major dictionaries of the English lexicon do not concur with the popular definition that managers are reactive followers only concerned with executing a process, while leaders are luminaries, visionaries, and empowering of others. As a matter of fact, the definitions are very similar. They are both defined as one who oversees people, organizations, and processes.
Was President Lincoln a Manager or Leader?
Let me answer this question in two parts:
- What is the definition of a leader vs a manager? I just argued that neither I, nor any other writer or teacher of leadership, should redefine words. Still, there seems to be a notable distinction in the use these words that I could not find explanation of in the dictionaries. We usually don’t say, “President Lincoln was the manager of the United States of America.” Rather, we say he was the leader. But we do say, “President Lincoln managed the generals of the Union effectively.” Or, “He managed the war with deft.” So we seem to use the word leader in a broader sense than we use the word manager. For example, “He led the country while he managed the war.” Or, “He led the people while he managed the finances.”
- So, if President Lincoln managed the war, was he not then a manager? Yes. But we don’t like to think of our great leaders as managers. I believe the answer is: President Lincoln was both a leader and a manager.
Management is not bad. Bad management is bad.
Using the subtle distinction that leadership might be understood as broader in nature, we know that those who are charged to oversee people and organizations must both lead and manage.
There is good leadership and bad leadership. There is good management and bad management. An effective leader, therefore, must lead well and manage well.
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