Two common misconceptions about leadership and management

Rogier van der Werf

A lot has been written about leadership and management. The subjects are much covered in HR literature and yet all too often, the two are misconceived and misunderstood. 

Two common misconceptions about leadership and management

As subjects, leadership and management are some of the most popular and important themes in HR literature. In my role as a consultant, I regularly travel to multinational organisations across Europe and the topic often comes up.

During these visits I am consistently surprised to find that a lot of the time, people have two major misconceptions about leadership and management.

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Two common misconceptions

1. One is better than the other

Organisations need both leaders and managers. As characteristics, they serve different purposes. I read far too often of the need for managers to become leaders and that somehow leadership is ‘better’ than management but it’s not the case. Management is equally as important as leadership.

2. Leaders are at the top, managers are in the middle, and specialists are at the bottom

Although some may like employees to believe this is true, it’s not. Successful organisations have both managers and leaders at every level. Leadership is certainly more visible at the top, however it is not exclusive to the top-levels of organisations. Where employees lie in the organisation does not define their management or leadership capabilities; their characteristics and skills do.

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A subtle distinction

Over the years, management styles have undergone several transformations. Whereas previously organisations favoured hard management styles, today managers are seen much more as facilitators. Although styles have changed, managers’ goal of delivering quality on time within budget has remained unchanged.

Managers are very much focused on the process and execution in organisations. Their responsibilities include team selection, the setting and monitoring of expectations, and ensuring that processes are both effective and efficient. As a role management is very concrete, and the focus is generally on the present.

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In contrast to managers, the goal of leaders is to drive positive change and to focus on behaviour.

Leaders’ responsibilities include developing and motivating employees. Whilst managers motivate employees on a daily basis, leaders motivate employees through vision and an inspiring journey. Leaders’ are generally a person that others follow and are very often inspiring. Their roles have a much stronger focus on the future and the long term.

Although there is much overlap between the two, there exists a subtle but important difference. The essence of management is concerned with enabling performance in the short term, whereas leadership is more concerned with enabling performance in the long term.

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Two distinct roles

When I discuss the difference between managers and leaders, I always refer to two case studies from our research the 8 secrets to enhancing employee engagement. The first case study demonstrates the role that managers play in efficiency and effectiveness. At one of the organisations in our study (in the health industry), there was a concern within senior management that employees were being hindered by senseless rules and bureaucracy.

To combat this, the organisation built a “Idiotic rules” button into their internet. Employees were given the chance to flag up senseless rules and where possible, senior management promised to remove the rules that were hindering the efficiency and effectiveness of processes.

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In comparison to the above, the second case study highlights how leaders motivate employees through an inspiring journey and vision. An organisation that installed boilers and heating equipment was struggling to create a compelling service for their employees.

After watching the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, inspiration struck the organisation’s leadership. A decision was made to change the goal of the company to reduce their environmental impact. Leaders envisioned how the company could help reduce clients’ carbon footprint and low and behold, both employees’ motivation and engagement skyrocketed, along with the commercial profits.

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Stick to what you’re good at

Assuming that great leaders make great managers and vice versa is risky. In doing so, organisations are missing out on an opportunity to make the most of managers and leaders’ potential. Forcing either one to attempt the other is more often than not, asking employees’ to do something that lies away from their strengths and qualities.

The key to success is recognising the subtle difference between the two, and ensuring that great managers are left to manage, whilst inspiring leaders are left to lead.

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