The Leadership Dilemma – Management or Leadership?

Today, businesses are run by very competent people who are not necessarily Ghandi or Nelson Mandela but who seem to drive their businesses to success, not just by themselves but as a group that exhibits all the characteristics of a great leader. I think these leadership teams have figured out that it is rare to find all the leadership characteristics in one person. In fact, I read an article on HBR called Management is (Still) Not Leadership by Dr. John Kotter that further explains the leadership challenge.

Dr. Kotter, Konusuke Matshushita Professor at Harvard, explains in his article that it is important to recognize that leadership and management are completely different things but are interchangeably used most of the time.

He differentiates the two terms by defining “management” as a set of well-known processes such as planning, staffing, budgeting, problem solving, etc. that helps an organization do what it knows how to do well, and “leadership” as being about vision and taking an organization into the future by finding the right opportunities for success. Simply put, management is about processes while leadership is about behavior.

The obvious confusion with these two terms usually cause misunderstandings that hinder businesses to achieve success which is why Dr. Kotter, in his article, highlights three mistakes that affects our chance at business success.

Mistake 1 – People use the terms “management” and “leadership” interchangeably. This shows that they don’t see the crucial difference between the two and the vital functions that each role plays.

Mistake 2 – People use the term “leadership” to refer to the people at the very top of hierarchies. They then call the people in the layers below them in the organization “management.” And then all the rest are workers, specialists, and individual contributors. This is also a mistake and very misleading.

Mistake 3 – People often think of “leadership” in terms of personality characteristics, usually as something they call charisma. Since few people have great charisma, this leads logically to the conclusion that few people can provide leadership, which gets us into increasing trouble.

I agree with Dr. Kotter. In my experience as a business consultant, I have realized that it is crucial for business leaders to understand the difference between management and leadership, and to also focus on the latter, not only the former, so that we can better prepare and position our businesses for success. This is summarized in this great quote from Kotter.

“Leadership is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior. And in an ever-faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy. The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous and it’s a recipe for failure.” – Dr John Kotter. 2012

This quote taken from Dr. Kotter’s article clearly defines what leadership should be. Many focus their efforts to create a few brilliant individual leaders to “carry the rest,” however the “real change” happens by having good leaders throughout the different levels of your business.

Based on experience, I’ve seen that good business leadership is often about having a team with clear, shared goals, a common language and toolkit for planning, problem solving and decision making. In organisations where we have focused on improving these skill sets there has been a massive payback in terms of sales, profits and employee satisfaction.

Provide your team with the tools and the language to make great leadership decisions and act on them – and you can’t go wrong.

The message: Don’t build a mediocre team led by a brilliant leader. BUILD A STRONG TEAM OF GOOD LEADERS.

What are your thoughts on this?

Russell Cummings is a career consultant having spent the last 25 years working as a Strategy and Business Development Facilitator to a wide cross-section of businesses and industries. For more information on Russell, visit

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