Leader-Manager: Is there a difference?

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Port Angeles, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

"Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; Leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall." - Stephen Covey

In the February 2005 issue of the APWA Reporter, the Leadership and Management Committee published an article that asked the question: Is there a difference between a leader and a manager? If you remember, the article asked several questions: 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, or both? Does one or the other need soft skills versus hard skills?

Many who read that article wrote to share their opinion on this subject. Not surprisingly, we received comments both pro and con on the subject.

Carrie Mattingly of Port Hueneme, CA, wrote, "Absolutely there is a difference between a leader and a manager. When people do not recognize or acknowledge these differences, conflict can result as the expectations in each camp are quite different. We need both and we need to help both learn how to be a little of both. I agree there are crossover skills/competencies, but oftentimes too much emphasis is put on being a leader where good management skills are desperately needed. Managers need to (1) be better trained on how to be managers before they are thrown into management and (2) know that you don't have to have all the skills/core competencies associated with leadership."

John Hudak of Hydro Designers wrote, "As a speaker and author, John Maxwell has stated that everything rises and falls on leadership. Leadership is influence—the ability to obtain followers. There are times when the leader must perform dual roles—maybe the case in smaller systems/communities or private business. Continuous improvement, training and education are a must in order to succeed in today's rapidly changing environment."

George Haines of Gillette, WY, also quoted John Maxwell, saying, "A widespread misunderstanding is that leading and managing are one and the same. Up until a few years ago, books that claimed to be on leadership were often really about management. The main difference between the two is that leadership is about influencing people to follow. As former Chrysler chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca wryly commented, 'Sometimes even the best manager is like the little boy with a big dog, waiting to see where the dog wants to go so that he can take him there.' The best way to test whether a person can lead rather than just manage is to ask him to create positive change. Managers can maintain direction, but they can't change it. To move people in a new direction, you need influence."

Paul Preetipal of Glacial Sand and Gravel of Winnipeg, Canada, indicated, "I agree all managers cannot be leaders. Unfortunately, many managers settle for medium performance level. They should be trained to work at their full potential. One way can be to give them clear direction of growth so that they stay focused and perform."

Steve Schmidt of McPherson, KS, stated, "I do believe there is a difference in leadership and management, although I would be hard pressed to render definitions. There are 'doers' and 'followers' in this world. You see leaders at all levels throughout an organization. They have a certain credibility and charisma. Some people can be very good managers, but poor leaders. In general, I think leaders are also managers, but in a broader sense, more like 'empowerers'."

David Ray, Ohio DOT, wrote, "I do believe there is a difference, and effectively run public works departments need both good managers and good leaders. To serve our customers, competent leaders and managers are both important. My opinion is that leaders look outward and managers look inward at the organization. This defined the balance."

Jeff Rose of Maryville, TN, wrote, "It was interesting to find out someone was looking into the differences between managers and leaders. I imagined myself more of a leader than a manager, because I wanted to lead my department to a higher level of productivity through some innovative teamwork practices. I soon found that it was a slow process to win trust, introduce change, get buy-in, work the plan, hold people accountable, etc. I also found that as I 'led' the process, I was also managing the process. I did not have the luxury of leading without managing, because of the small size of our department. I think most utility managers would fall into this category of being a leader and a manager."

Not all the readers thought there was much of a difference between a leader and a manager.

Pete Butkus, Assistant City Manager of Sammamish, WA, responded to the question, "Yes, if we want to set up a society of classes that has the potential to pit one against another to the non-benefit of what we are trying to accomplish." He also states, "No, if we want to define the core competencies that people in the public works profession (and others) need to have in order to provide service to those we serve. Having two distinct groups only serves to confuse the non-PW public and pretty soon we get ourselves so caught up in our own rhetoric that we become irrelevant to the public."

Mr. Robert Goodin states, "After a 42-year career in the public works field, I have come to believe that any distinction between leadership and management is purely artificial. It was axiomatic that managers were leaders, and leaders were managers. In the supervisor's course, I used your Warren Bennis quote in a different way: What I taught was that 'efficiency was doing things right' and 'effectiveness was doing the right things' and our manager's goal was to be both efficient and effective." (Note: The course that Mr. Goodin mentions was a two-day workshop created in collaboration with APWA in the past.) Mr. Goodin states, "My view is that there is no distinction, and not only can you be both, but you must be both."

And finally, Mr. Donald Davis, a retired City Manager, states, "I would suggest the association develop people skills as a very important part of their education program. I would also suggest you think about a little different take on the subject. In my life, I found lots of people were managers of something, but some were better than others. I finally, in my mind, differentiated good managers and excellent managers as being something called leadership. A better title might be Administrator and a Leader. Most Administrators are technically competent, but less people skilled than great managers. Great managers are future-oriented and able to communicate their visions to others."

So the debate goes on. We often talk of management and leadership as if they are the same thing. They are, in my opinion, not. The two are related, but their central functions are different. Managers may provide leadership, and leaders may perform management functions, but managers do not perform the unique functions of leaders. I would suggest that the reader revisit Warren Bennis' book, Learning to Lead. His definition defines the distinction between a leader and a manager as: "The leader does the right things; the manager does things right." Mr. Bennis then proceeds with a number of important distinctions between the two.

James E. Colvard, Professor at Indiana University, defines the difference as, "Multiple functions, limited resources and conflicting demands for time and resources require management. It involves setting priorities, establishing processes, overseeing the execution of tasks and measuring progress against expectations. Management is focused on the short term, ensuring that resources are expended and progress is made within time frames of days, weeks and months. Leadership, which deals with uncertainty, is focused on the long term. Management's concern with efficiency means doing things right to conserve resources. Leadership is focused on effectiveness—doing the right thing. The public sector develops a lot of good managers, but very few leaders.

"Management is about coping with complexity; it brings order and predictability to a situation. But that's no longer enough; to succeed, organizations must be able to adapt to change. Leadership, then, is about learning to cope with rapid change."

In What Leaders Really Do, John P. Kotter states, "Management and leadership both involve deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people to accomplish the agenda, and ensuring that the work actually gets done. Their work is complementary, but each system of action goes about the tasks in different ways." He further defines the difference as: "Management involves planning and budgeting; leadership involves setting direction. Management involves organizing and staffing; leadership involves aligning people. Management provides control and solves problems; leadership provides motivation." Mr. Kotter goes on to state, "Leaders do not make plans; they don't solve problems; they don't even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it." In his opinion, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in any organization.

What organizations really need are people who can do both—leaders who know how to manage, and managers who know how to lead.

Of course, not everyone can be good at both leading and managing. Some people have the capacity to become excellent managers but not strong leaders. Others have great leadership potential but, for a variety of reasons, have great difficulty becoming strong managers. Managing is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.

Management develops the capacity to achieve its plan by organizing and staffing—creating an organizational structure and set of jobs for accomplishing plan requirements, staffing the jobs with qualified individuals, communicating the plan to those people, delegating responsibility for carrying out the plan, and devising systems to monitor implementation. The equivalent leadership activity, however, is aligning people.

Abraham Zalenik, in Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? states, "Tough, persistent, smart, analytical, tolerant, and of good will—all qualities you want in your best managers. How else can they perform their jobs: solving problems and directing people and affairs?

"But let's face it; it takes neither genius nor heroism to be a manager. Even highly valued managers don't inflame employees' passions and imagination. Nor do they stimulate the change that all organizations require. For those qualities, you need leaders, not managers. Managers and leaders are two different animals. Leaders, like artists, tolerate chaos and lack of structure. Managers seek order, control, and rapid resolution of problems.

"Where managers act to limit choices, leaders develop fresh approaches to longstanding problems and open issues to new options. To be effective, leaders must project their ideas into images that excite people and only then develop choices that give those images substance."

Management, then, is about promoting stability—bringing order and predictability to complex, chaotic situations. Specifically, managers focus on planning and budgeting, organizing and staffing, and problem solving. They make it easier for people to complete their work, day after day. Leadership, on the other hand, is about producing change: setting direction for change through vision and strategy, and aligning people behind initiatives. Leaders touch people at their deepest levels, getting them to believe in alternative futures and to take initiative based on shared visions. They provoke a sense of belonging and idealism. However, I believe that most leaders don't do most of the things that their organizations get done; they do not even make them get done. Rather, they help to establish the structures, conditions, and attitudes through which things get done. The leader sets the goals, sets the priorities, and sets and maintains the standards. Warren Bennis states, "Leadership accounts for, at the very least, 15% of the success of any organization."

Marcus Buckingham, in The One Thing You Need to Know About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, states that "both leaders and managers are critically important to the ongoing success of an organization, but no, they are not interchangeable. On the contrary, the role of the leader and the role of the manager are utterly different. The responsibilities are different. The starting points are different. The talents required to excel at each are different." Mr. Buckingham also defines leadership as follows: "The one thing that distinguishes leadership from management is that ability to form a vision of a better future and then to explain that vision so effectively that the leader is followed."

To try to conclude this discussion on leadership and management, we need a good definition of leadership. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously pours scorn on word definitions. When Alice challenges him that the word "glory," which he has just defined as "a nice knock-down argument," doesn't actually mean "a nice knock-down argument," he replies, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more or less." This is a quirky perspective, which Humpty Dumpty then plays out into a theory that you must be the master of your words before they master you. Leadership and management are interchangeable to many people. A great many people have taken a crack at defining leadership. Perhaps you think that leadership is akin to art: You don't need to define it, because you'll know it when you see it. Would Rudi Giuliani come to mind as a leader? Would Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King remind you of a leader? Great leaders rally people to a better future. What talents do you need to lead? If the core talent of great managers is an instinct to coach others toward success, then optimism and ego are the talents underpinning all great leadership.

This discussion revolves around the premise that there is a difference in leadership and management. Each is critically important to the sustained success of the organization, but the focus of each is entirely different. The manager's starting point is the individual employee. The leader starts with his image of the future. You may be able to play both roles, of course, but if you do, you must know when to change gears. When you want to manage, begin with the person. When you want to lead, begin with the picture of where you are headed.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery and is condemned to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. Hawthorne was masterful on the use of symbolism. Taking into account all the various interpretations of the symbolism in the novel, many see the "A" as a symbol of ambiguity—the very fact of multiple interpretations and the difficulty of achieving consensus. So it is with trying to develop a definitive method of recognizing a leader from a manager. Perhaps we should resort to Hawthorne's method—when we find a good leader we make them wear an "L" on their forehead and when we find a good manager she/he gets to wear the letter "M."

When the Leadership and Management Committee embarked on the journey to create "The Baker's Menu," committee member John Ostrowski remarked, "Developing core competencies for managers could be one of those cases where the journey is more rewarding than the destination. Discussing what makes up core management competencies, however, could possibly lead to better management." The journey taken to develop a recognizable difference between a leader and a manager has certainly been more rewarding than the destination.

The Leadership and Management Committee recognized that there is enough of a difference between a leader and a manager and developed a set of competencies for each. "The Baker's Dozen" was developed for the leader and "The Baker's Menu" was developed for the manager.

William Sterling, P.E., is a former Director of Public Works for the City of Greeley, Colorado. A past APWA Top Ten recipient, he can be reached at sterling@publicworksmanagement.com.