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Management is Still Not Leadership

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Thu Jan 10 2013

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(From HBR Blog Network) -- A few weeks ago, the BBC asked me to come in for a radio interview. They told me they wanted to talk about effective leadership — China had just elevated Xi Jinping to the role of Communist Party leader; General David Petraeus had stepped down from his post at the CIA a few days earlier; the BBC itself was wading through a leadership scandal of its own — but the conversation quickly veered, as these things often do, into a discussion about how individuals can keep large, complex, unwieldy organizations operating reliably and efficiently.

That's not leadership, I explained. That's management — and the two are radically different.

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In more than four decades of studying businesses and consulting to organizations on how to implement new strategies, I can't tell you how many times I've heard people use the words "leadership" and "management" synonymously, and it drives me crazy every time.

The interview reminded me once again that the confusion around these two terms is massive, and that misunderstanding gets in the way of any reasonable discussion about how to build a company, position it for success and win in the twenty-first century. The mistakes people make on the issue are threefold:

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.

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