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CW Bulletin

CW Bulletin is the e-newsletter supplement to CW magazine. Sent each month to all members, every issue of CW Bulletin presents articles, case studies and additional resources on timely topics in communication.

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Effective Leadership

The Difference Between
Leading and Managing

by Thomas J. Lee

A year or so ago The New York Times asked the chief executive of a big Silicon Valley company what he had learned through all his years in senior management. His answer startled and saddened me.

He replied, and I paraphrase, that he had learned an immutable fact of life: Real change was unrealistic because you cannot change people.

The response startled me because, in a curt statement, this CEO revealed himself to be abdicating the hard work of leadership. He was saying that he saw himself not as a leader—rising to the challenge of inspiring big change, market-shattering innovation and breakthrough performance—but as a manager, responsible for meeting budgets, quotas and deadlines.

The response saddened me because, after 20 years of working in the vineyards of leadership and communication, I was meeting another executive who just didn’t get it. There are altogether too many of them. They give lip service to leadership and communication, and then they shrink themselves to the quotidian tasks of administration.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. Most senior executives were educated and trained to manage, and they have always been rewarded and promoted for managing. So they think like managers, not leaders.

Major business publications compound the problem by glossing over the differences between managing and leading, and by broadly referring to senior executives as “leaders,” as if leadership were a function of hierarchy. We would gain a lot of clarity if we instead understood leadership and management as work—not as people in a pecking order but as responsibilities, tasks and, especially, communication.

Up, down and across an organization, anyone in authority must both manage and lead. Frontline supervisors must bear some responsibility for collateral leadership, and even the CEO has some basic managerial tasks.

The work of management is all about ensuring steady, reliable, consistent performance. A manager who is managing well ensures that a team performs to certain predetermined expectations.

If the expectation involves spending money, we call it coming in under budget. If it involves completing a project by a specific date, we call it meeting a deadline. If it involves doing or producing something within acceptable parameters, we call it complying with a standard—quality, perhaps, or safety. When it involves making or selling or issuing enough of something, we call it clearing a quota. There are many other kinds of similar challenges around production processes, contractual obligations, legal procedures and requirements, ethics standards, cultural imperatives, and much more.

When successful, management creates alignment, which is the deliverable or work product of good management. It is the equilibrium of expectation and performance. Alignment is a good thing; misalignment is bad. But remember: Alignment is not the product of leadership. It is the product of management.

The work of leadership is altogether different from the work of management. Leadership is all about change. A leader who is leading well is successfully bringing about a particular big change, either culturally or operationally.

Leadership entails envisioning, articulating, inspiring and supporting change—attitudinal or behavioral—or a breakthrough performance of some sort, typically requiring the discretionary and self-sacrificing efforts of people, and often in an environment of uncertainty and risk to oneself.

The change or breakthrough may involve launching a new product, or expanding geographically, or merging cultures after an acquisition, or fending off a unionization vote, or adopting a new technology, or meeting the changing needs of customers. There are many kinds of such challenges.

When successful, leadership creates engagement, which is the deliverable or work product of good leadership. It is the predicate of change. Engagement is a good thing; disengagement is bad. But engagement is not the product of good management. It is the product of good leadership throughout the organization.

Alignment is critical to meeting the needs of the present. Companies and other organizations—associations, governments, universities, charities, teams—make commitments they must fulfill. Alignment is necessary to fulfilling those commitments.

Engagement is critical to meeting the needs of the future. Companies and other organizations must always adapt to changing circumstances, environments, and opportunities, lest they wither and die as so many erstwhile giants that failed to adapt have withered and died before them. Without engagement, organizations cannot survive long into the future.

It is another big mistake to use the tools of one to accomplish the goals of the other. Companies often try that, and they routinely fail, whenever they launch a “change management” initiative while overlooking the need to lead change, which is something entirely different. Similarly, an energetic and charismatic leader without an eye for detail can lose sight of the basics.

Management and leadership differ most dramatically in the substance, style and tone of the communication that supports them.

Communication for the sake of managing is authoritative, directive and influencing. It carries an implicit “stick” of accountability. It says don’t worry about tomorrow, just do this thing now or else.

Communication for the sake of leading is visionary, collaborative, energizing and inspiring. It carries an implicit “carrot” of opportunity. It says believe in the future, and come along on an exciting journey that will make everyone better off.

I like to draw two concentric circles to illustrate. I label the inner circle management and the outer circle leadership, to convey the point that good management is at the core of good leadership. That is because good managers must lead themselves, and paradoxically they do so by managing themselves. Good leaders are their own first followers. They show the way so that others know the way.

Many companies and other organizations are well-managed. They meet the needs of the present just fine. But they are not necessarily well-led. Thus, they are duly anxious about the future. They are anxious not because they are unable to predict the future—no one is able to predict it—but because they are not ready for whatever it may bring. They are not ready because they know so little about change, about engagement and ultimately about leadership.

Managing and leading are two different things, and so are alignment and engagement. Both are important. Both are necessary. They’re just different. Quite dramatically different at that.


Thomas J. Lee has trained thousands of managers in the work, opportunities and communication of leadership. He blogs at www.MindingGaps.com, and he can be reached at tom@arceil.com.