Leadership/Management: Is there a difference?

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Director of Public Works (Retired)
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Previously, the Leadership and Management Technical Committee of APWA developed a brochure entitled "Core Competencies for Public Works Leaders." The committee is now contemplating developing a similar program: "Core Competencies for Public Works Managers."

In the "Core Competencies for Leaders," 13 competencies were developed. During recent committee deliberations, discussion centered around the premise that while some of the 13 leadership competencies may very well apply to managers as well, they may have to be expanded.

Leadership/Management Competencies

Leadership Competencies (previously developed by the Leadership and Management Committee)

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance

Management Competencies (currently under consideration by the Leadership and Management Committee)

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflicts
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible

However, before the committee proceeds, we have to explore a basic premise: Is there enough of a distinction between a leader and a manager? If there is a difference, can it be defined? Can a person be one or the other? Does one or the other need soft skills versus hard skills? Should the committee develop a separate set of competencies for managers? This article is written to elicit the readers' input into those questions and to generate a real-world discussion of the possible difference between leadership and management.

John Ostrowski, a public works management consultant and a member of the Leadership and Management Committee, states that "Developing Core Competencies could well be one of those cases where the journey is more rewarding than the destination." Further, he states, "Discussing what makes up Core Management Competencies...could lead to greater understanding by a greater number of people. This in turn could possibly lead to better management."

Leadership-Management: Is there a difference?
Thirty years ago, Peter Drucker wrote Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices and took 841 pages to explain what management is. While he did not specifically talk about Core Competencies, he did define a manager as someone responsible for a contribution. Perhaps it's time to revisit that reference again.

In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, management is defined as "Judicious use of means to accomplish an end, to direct or carry on business or affairs." In the same reference, leadership is defined as "A person who has commanding authority or influence."

In his book The Leader-Manager: Guidelines for Action, William D. Hitt defines a leader as "someone who is able to transform vision into significant actions. Leadership is what gives an organization its vision and its ability to translate the vision into reality."

Harold Geneen, in Managing, defines management "as a team who operates a business. Management means to get something done, to accomplish something that you set out to do."

Many of us are familiar with Warren Bennis' definition of the distinction between a leader and a manager as: "The leader does the right things; the manager does things right." He expands this distinction in his book, Learning to Lead, as:

"The manager administers; the leader innovates. The manager is a copy; the leader is an original. The manager maintains; the leader develops. The manager accepts reality; the leader investigates it. The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people. The manager relies on control; the leader must trust. The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective. The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why. The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person."

Whether or not you agree with Bennis, it's clear that many others have developed definitions of the distinction between leadership and management.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once commented, "Sometimes even the best manager is like the little boy with the big dog, waiting to see where the dog wants to go so that he can take him there."

Therefore, for the sake of this discussion, let's proceed with the premise that, in our field, there is a distinction between leadership and management.

We are all familiar with leaders (i.e., Jesus, Rudolph Giuliani, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, to list only a few). Now, can you list some noted managers? Within your own organization, are you a leader or a manager? Within your organization do you have excellent managers, but who are not necessarily leaders in their field? What is it that sets leaders apart from managers? Before I go any further with this line of thought, I need to stress that I feel that there is not a negative connotation in either distinction. Earlier I said a leader sets the vision of an organization; a manager sees to it that the vision is carried out. The challenge may be that you need to be and do both and to recognize in which mode you need to be.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "The Department is filled with able men who analyze well, but feel compelled always to bring problems to me for a final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me what they have done."

The American Public Works Association has over 26,000 members. However, probably only less than 10% of these members get actively involved with various "leadership" roles within the organization. The Leadership and Management Committee did an excellent job in developing Leadership Competencies, but I feel strongly that the next group of individuals we need to reach are those who are the managers of any organization, those individuals that make things happen. (As Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise states to his crew, "Make it so.") Hence, the development of Management Competencies is needed. While some Leadership Competencies may cross over to management, I feel that management should have its own set of competencies.

Sue Hahn, the Chairperson of the Leadership and Management Committee, said, "As a public works professional, you are leading your agency. Regardless of where you are on the organizational chart, you have daily opportunities to provide leadership and to make decisions. Many of these decisions will be opportunities to distinguish yourself as a public works professional."

Management Competencies
What is it that distinguishes a leader from a manager? Some would say that doing your job as expected demonstrates dependability; doing your job better than expected demonstrates commitment. Commitment also means that you feel and act with a sense of dedication. As Robert Browning once said, "One's reach must exceed their grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

A recent study concluded that an estimated 40% of all managers failed within their first 18 months on the job (Center for Creative Leadership). Managers who choose to rest on their knowledge and skills and who are not committed to improvement are doomed to fail. There is no other way to state it. In today's fast-paced and constantly changing world and challenges, managers who aren't growing are falling behind their peers in terms of skills, knowledge and experience. The "comfort" zone is full of people who do not invest time and energy in personal improvement and are passed by others who make personal growth a priority.

It cannot be assumed that there are only leaders and non-leaders. In fact, William D. Hitt, in his book The Leader-Manager: Guidelines for Action, indicates there can be times when you are in both modes.

This article is not intended to define the precise differences between a leader and a manager; many management gurus have attempted to do this. Suffice it to say that I believe there is a need to focus on the manager of an organization. I base this statement on the following observations:

  • Managers may aspire to be leaders (or some may say forced into that role); they may want to leave their comfort zone.
  • Managers need to have training geared to their specific role in their organization.
  • The failure of many managers indicates to me the need of specific training.
  • Not every manager aspires to be a leader but wants to be the best manager possible.

Let's go back to our bulleted list of leadership and management competencies. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the overall emphasis of any Management Competency development should be directed to those individuals who may not believe they are actual leaders, but who can benefit from direction in managing their programs. The committee's work should demonstrate how the Leadership Competencies could lead to the development of competencies that will relate directly to management issues. Should the committee develop a second brochure entitled "Core Competencies for Public Works Managers"? Or should the committee's work focus on specific case studies such as managing resources, staff development, technical knowledge or as John Ostrowski suggests, developing "people skills"?

With the success achieved with the previous brochure, I believe the committee should proceed with the development of Management Competencies. Even though there may be some overlap between the two areas, I believe that the committee can develop a program that emphasizes specific management areas.

We have all heard the statement "The devil is in the details." If there is a significant difference between a leader and a manager, we need to explore that difference and how to provide a mechanism to address the difference.

The committee would like to hear from you, the reader, as to the approach the committee should take. Do you think there is enough of a distinction to develop a separate set of competencies (hard skills) for management? What, in your opinion, distinguishes a leader from a manager? Can you be both?

Another great leader, Gen. George Patton, once said, "Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results."

Bill Sterling, P.E., a past Top Ten recipient, can be reached at Sterling@Publicworksmanagement.com.