Image by Espen Willersrud

The difference between management and leadership (with an unexpected nod to fungus)

I’m stealing a moment during lunch to try and capture what has been my greatest take out from Day 2 at The Marketing Academy Boot Camp. Whether or not I actually get through this whole post in the next twenty minutes is yet to be known*. ‘Time of publish’ will be the teller there.

*Spoiler alert. Totally didn’t do it.

In my workshop today we talked about the very subtle, yet crucial difference between management and leadership.

It’s actually a theory I’ve put thought into before. I even came up with a bacteria based analogy (wait for it). But as with a lot of things I come up with on my own, there’s always an element of doubt. Therefore, to hear it articulated so well today really took it from feeling like an insular thought to something more actual.

Management and leadership are both good things. They’re required for different situations and they don’t compete with each other. However, what often happens is that management can be confused with leadership.

Management is the functional role of controlling a situation. Be that a project at work or organising a trip away with friends. A manager sets an objective, assigns tasks and ensures that the job gets done.

The result of good management is often very predictable. Usually because it meets the criteria or goal that is established at the beginning.

Management, when visualised, can often be put into a diagram. It’s systematic and usually quite linear. And this is fine. Management is about process and getting something done.

If we consider the language with which we refer to management it too can feel quite systematic. Perhaps even regimented.

A situation that needs to be ‘managed’ brings to mind something chaotic which requires reigning in. ‘Managing your finances’ doesn’t inspire much excitement and similarly ‘managing people’s expectations’ alludes to something needing to be brought down in scale.

I’m wary this last point might make management sound like a bad or compressing thing. Which it’s not. Management serves a very useful purpose and is regularly required when it comes to getting a job done.

However, management is not the same as leadership.

Leadership is a lot more opportunistic. It’s about bringing out the behaviours in people that allow them to grow and expand beyond what they’d do if they were simply given a task. It’s not about the leader as an individual, it’s about the impact they can have on the collective.

Cue: bacteria.

As part of applying to get on the Marketing Academy Scholarship, I did a lot of thinking about what I thought good leadership was. It was during this exercise that I first considered how it was a different thing to management.

For me, management conjured up the idea of a line. In this line, the manager was at the front and passed instruction and orders along to other team members. There was a goal, a direction and an action plan in which everyone played an integral role.

However, when I thought of leadership, I thought of a petri dish.

You know, those little plastic pots of gel from Science class? The ones you were tasked to grow fungi in as part of Biology Week? And perhaps very occasionally forgot about only to stumble upon weeks later smelling like mouldy bread and harvesting what looked like a frost bitten pig’s ear? Yep, those things.

The idea here was that the effect of leadership is outward. It inspires and drives growth in areas you mightn’t have seen or expected and doesn’t demand authority or status. It also doesn’t always start in one place. I fundamentally believe leaders can come (or grow, if we are being really true to the analogy) from anyway.

The destination is also not always known either. There will always be an objective, but rather than prescribing actions to get there, petri dish leadership creates freedom for exploration.

‘What if we did X?’

‘This mightn’t be right but we could try Y?’

‘I really don’t know the answer, here’s the background, how could we look at it differently?’

This distinction between leadership and management was something we really unpacked. And it was so useful as it gave such clarity for a lot of the decision making and problem solving models we went through later on in the day.

One of the key applications was learning there are situations that will call upon directive management techniques and those that will allow for more leadership based styles. However, it’s difficult to know which to go for without having a basic knowledge of which will drive what sort of reactions and results from people.

Again, I feel like I’ve really only skimmed the surface of what we learned today; I’m truly beginning to feel like a human sponge.

But as a highlight, this discussion on leadership and management stood out as a real ‘lighthouse’ piece of thinking. Simply coming to terms with the difference between the two felt like something that will really help steer decisions and better my understanding of how to get the best result out of, and for, people.

In short, another pretty great day.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.