Distinguishing between Leadership and Management

Wheel and compass square

I just finished a conversation about the differences and similarities between leaders and managers. During the discussion, I brought up an analogy I have used in the past to describe them: A manager is the wheel of the ship and the leader is the compass, both are needed in order to get the ship in the right direction. Inspired by this discussion, I collected the concepts and comparisons of leadership versus management from the leadership literature.

Leadership is defined formally as the process by which an individual influences other in ways that help group and organizational goals (Greenberg, 2005; Yukl, 2012). From this definition, it may seem that leaders and managers are quite similar. Indeed, the two terms have often been used interchangeably. However, this is misleading insofar as they are conceptually distinct (Weathersby, 1999). The primary function of a leader is to create the essential purpose of the organization and the strategy for attaining it. By contrast, the job of a manager is to implement that vision. Managers are responsible for achieving that end and taking the steps necessary to make the leader’s vision a reality. The reason for the confusion is that the distinction between establishing a mission and implementing it is often blurred in practice.

That being said, many leadership scholars (e.g., Bass & Stogdill, 1990; Greenberg, 2005; Hickman, 1992; Kotter, 1988; Mintzber, 2003; Rost, 1993; Yukl, 2012) view leading and managing as distinct processes but they do not assume that managers and leaders have to be different people.  With this research in mind, I have outlined goals of and processes performed specifically by managers versus leaders (Kotter, 1990).

Leadership seeks to produce organizational change by:

1.) Developing a vision of the future and strategies for making necessary changes

2.) Communicating and explaining the vision.

3.) Motivating and inspiring people to attain the vision.

Management seeks to produce predictability and order by:

1.) Setting operational goals, establishing actions plans with timetables, and allocating resources.

2.) Organizing and staffing (establishing structure, assigning people to jobs).

3.) Monitoring results and solving problems.

Now that you have a better understand of some of the processes, it is important to note that management and leadership both involve deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of relationships to do it, and working to ensure it happens. However the two processes have some incompatible elements; strong leadership can disrupt order and efficiency, and strong management can discourage risk taking and innovation. Both processes are necessary for the success of an organization. For instance using strong management can create bureaucracy without purpose, and only using strong leadership can create change that is impractical. The relative importance of the two processes and the best way to integrate them truly depends on the situation at the time and the needs of the organization.


Bass, B. M., & Stogdill, R. M. (1990). Handbook of leadership. Theory, Research & Managerial Applications, 3.

Greenberg, J. (2005). Managing behavior in organizations. Pearson Prentice Hall.

Hickman, C. (1992).  Mind of a manager soul of a leader. University of Texas Press.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yachting/5205296452/?rb=1

Kotter, J. P. (1988). The leadership factor (Vol. 10). New York: Free Press.

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

Mintzberg, H. (2003). The manager’s job: Folklore and fact. London: Routledge.

Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership development in the new millennium. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 1(1), 91-110.

Weathersby, G. B. (1999). Leadership vs management. Management Review, p. 5

Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.



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