Let’s talk about management vs. leadership

If I hear “we don’t need managers, we need leaders” one more time, I’m probably going to either go deaf, or potentially throw an issue of HBR at whoever says it.

We get it. Paper-pushers, bureaucracy-lovers, and people who generally have some sort of authority with little credibility behind it are labeled managers. They have a big red “M” on their foreheads. We hate them. We want “leaders”, people who inspire us. People who help us grow. We want this impossible mix of open-door policies, visionaries without the Steve Jobs-esque ego, and constant feedback. And yet, that same person also needs to be someone who makes sure that our paychecks are auto-deposited on time, and who completes our reviews with just the right amount of content and the right proportion of good and bad in that shit sandwich.

We all aspire to be leaders, not managers. Leaders are the Thing To Be. There’s a whole slew of infographics, theoretical articles and opinions espousing that very idea, but is it right? Or are we potentially setting ourselves up for failure?


There are some roles that really require leadership abilities. Running a team or a business, heading up a community or even just organizing a fund raiser is best done by someone who cares about their team, the team’s outcome, and ensuring that everyone around them is consistently adding value and simultaneously living up to their own best standard. Whew. That’s a lot to live up to.

On the other hand, there are some roles that really don’t *require* leadership to be successful. Accounts payable reps? Probably not. Vet techs? Nope. City Clerks? Don’t think so. Even some people leading businesses units or departments don’t necessarily need to be a leader to be successful — and even well-liked. They are efficient, highly skilled, and likely extremely good at what they do — but they don’t need to be visionaries to be successful.

So why this pressure to be a leader? It likely comes from this ingrained idea that to be outstanding in your career, you have to transcend beyond the checklists of managerial duties and inspire something. Constantly. Consistently. And sometimes its feels like the penalty of leadership failure is career collapse.

For a moment, think about what management looks like to you. And then think about what makes a leader, well… a leader. Certain tasks and responsibilities map back to each, right? Maybe it looks something like this.

I like to hand-write lists. I did not do well in handwriting class in 2nd grade.

So we take these ideas of a manager and a leader, and we try to figure out how to navigate between them. Never fear, I have a chart for that:

Us business-y types love our quadrants. Taxonomize ALL THE THINGS.

True story: I thought about this quadrant after discussing crappy (and good) managers with my parents, so this is the brainchild of 3 bottles of wine and a whole lot of stories from their working lives (they are now both retired and have entered the “we can say what we want, we’re old” phase of their lives. ❤).

At any rate, most people seem to look at the relationship between management and leadership as pretty static skill sets. No one wants to be in the lower left-hand corner and everyone aspires to be in the upper right. Here’s a short rundown of what lives in each section.

  • Low Management, Low Leadership: Neither a people-leader nor a thought-leader
  • High Management, Low Leadership: Arguably the most common type of authority figure in a business.
  • Low Management, High Leadership: These people are not necessarily great people or idea managers — often they are thought leaders or project leaders.
  • High Management, High Leadership: These people are rare unicorns and almost no one does both well on a consistent basis.

But what if management and leadership were actually two ends of a dialectic, and not just this unmoving framework to aspire to? Way back in my undergrad and MA days (see also: I’m old), we studied relational dialectics, or the idea that there are a few key emotional needs — such as predictability and novelty — that exist simultaneously, although they are opposites and seemingly impossible to enact at the same moment. The supposed key to successful relationships is to keep those needs in balance.

What if the same is true here?

I didn’t mean to tip Leadership down like it’s heavier than Management, but… Freudian slip?

The idea is not so much that we don’t *want* to be managers — after all, there is always managerial work to be done. It’s also not about trying to be highly skilled at both management and leadership. Instead, we learn to maintain a balance between being a manager and a leader, doing each when it’s necessary. It also takes the pressure off of always having to be the best in everything, which is usually a setup for failure anyway.

Side note: I always did like Baxter and Montgomery. Who run the world? Girls.

Anywho, I digress.

So, that’s a little bit about how I make sense of the balance between management and leadership. At some point I’ll have even more fun drawings about what happens when you overlay value judgements on that silly quadrant from earlier. Stay tuned.

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