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What is the difference between leadership and management?

This is an excerpt from "Leadership Perspectives" an unpublished paper by Brent Duncan.

Discussions on leadership typically get bogged down by a debate between the differences of leadership and management. Some authors argue that leadership and management are diametrically opposed concepts (Bennis & Nanus, 1985) while other authors use the terms interchangeably (Yukl, 2010). In this section, I will consider competing perspectives to understand better the relationship between leadership and management, and will conclude by suggesting that effective leaders need to be good managers and that effective managers need to be good leaders.

Leaders and managers are different

Introducing the expression “managers are people who do things right, and leaders are people who do the right thing”, Bennis and Nanus (1985) asserted that an individual cannot be both a leader and a manager because leaders and managers have fundamentally different values and personalities. This encapsulated the classic distinction that implies that leaders are inherently good while managers are essentially cold-hearted (Zaleznik, 1977). This perspective sees the manager as stable, orderly, efficient, impersonal, risk averse, and short-term focused. In comparison, leaders are flexible, innovative, adaptive, caring, and long-term focused.

Although scholars and professionals alike quote the Bennis and Nanus (1985) definition to the point of cliché, it has serious limitations, as follows:

  • First, empirical research has failed to support the mutual exclusivity of leadership and management (Yukl, 2010).
  • Second, the perspective demonstrates ignorance of contemporary management writings, which almost universally consider leadership as one of the fundamental functions of management, along with planning, organizing, and controlling (Bateman & Snell, 2007; Nickles, McHugh, & McHugh, 2010). In other words, contemporary management scholarship and practice present leadership as a fundamental function of management—not as a mutually exclusive concept. Meanwhile, leadership literature is also starting to recognize the importance of effective management as a component of effective leadership (Yukl, 2010).
  • Third, Yukle asserted that Benis and Nanus presented “extreme stereotypes” (p. 7) that denigrate managers by implying that they are calculating and unethical fiends who cannot do the right thing. The same stereotype approach elevates leaders as effective, saintly beings who cannot do things right.
  • Fourth, reversing the Bennis and Nanus logic exposes a fundamental flaw in their argument: if “managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing,” then it follows that managers are people who cannot do the right thing while leaders are people who cannot do things right [See Table 1: Interpretation of the Bennis and Nanus stereotype of leaders and managers]. Similarly, if leaders are people who do the right thing and Hitler was a leader to the German people, then, according to the Bennis and Nanus reasoning, Hitler did the right thing. Granted, some contemporary scholars hold the idealistic position that only a person who influences others to do good things can be considered a leader, so Hitler was not a leader; but this trivializes the affect that “good” and “bad” leaders can have on individuals, societies, and civilizations.
  • Finally, some authors propose that one is not better than the other; both leadership and management serve different roles for accomplishing the same purpose (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005). For example, considering a stereotypical leader may inspire and motivate people; but without the structure and process provided by the stereotypical manager, inspiration may not be enough to organize and focus collective energy toward common goals.

Leaders and managers are not different

Other scholars have varying definitions of leadership and management but “do not assume that the leader and the manager are different people” (Yukl, 2010, p. 7). Mintzberg (1973, in Yukl, 2010) argued that the leadership role pervades all other managerial roles. Kotter (1990) saw management as a process for creating order and predictability, and leadership as a process for driving changes. Though he saw them as different functions, Kotter argued that both are necessary and that the situation determines the proper balance of leadership and management. For example, smaller organizations might need a larger infusion of leadership; but as they grow they need more management. The more dynamic and uncertain the external environment, the more leadership becomes necessary for driving continuous adaptation and transformation.

From a managerial perspective, Gary Dessler (2002) proposed that a leader is a person with managerial and personal power who can influence others to willingly perform actions and achieve goals beyond what the followers could achieve on their own. The manager’s influence is limited by the authority of the position and the ability to reward and punish people for progressing toward organizational goals. The key difference Dessler suggests is in motivating others to perform willingly versus rewarding and punishing people to perform. Though different applications of power, Dessler argues that leadership and management must be intertwined to be effective. Without influence and inspiration from leadership, organizing and planning may be ineffective. Similarly, regardless of how inspirational a leader may be, management proficiencies and functions are necessary for planning, structuring, and controlling of human activity.

Leadership and management are interchangeable

Some authors put aside the differences between management and leadership, and use the terms interchangeably because managers are “people who occupy positions in which they are expected to perform a leadership role” (Yukl, 2010, p. 8). Managers assert influence over people and processes; as far as leadership is an influence process, managers serve a leadership role. The manager’s ability to perform the functions of his or her job--planning, organizing, and controlling activities toward common goals--can be limited by his or her ability to influence people and processes. Similarly, a leader’s effectiveness may be limited by his or her ability to plan, organize, and control human activity toward common goals.


Managers must have leadership competence, and leaders should have management skills--or the ability to engage others who can plan, organize, and control collective action toward the leader’s vision. Platitudes that assert leadership and management are diametrically opposed concepts promote an inaccurate stereotype that tarnishes understanding of both while diminishing the potential effectiveness of those who adopt the axiom as a guiding philosophy.

Works Cited

Bateman, T. S., & Snell, S. A. (2007). Management: Leading & collaborating in a competitive world (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leadership: The strategies for taking charge. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Dessler, G. (2002). Management: Theory, practice, and application (University of Phoenix Custom Edition ed.). Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall.

Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2005). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). A force for change: How leadership differs from management. New York, NY: Free Press.

Mintzberg, H. (1973, in Yukl, 2010). The nature of managerial work. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Nickles, W. G., McHugh, J. M., & McHugh, S. M. (2010). Understanding Business (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Zaleznik, A. (1977). Managers and leaders: Are they different? Harvard Business Review , 55 (5), 67-78.