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Balancing leadership and management

Let us begin to explore this with a question to you: are you a leader or a manager?

On surface they both appear the same, don’t they? Both managers and leaders have to lead others and channel organization resources into getting things done. They are responsible for inputs and outcomes and the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which they achieve their goals.

Do the roles overlap?

Here’s an exercise that should help clarify the matter. How about drawing a Venn diagram for a leader and manager? What will that look like? Think of leaders as the white circle and manager as the textured one.



Are they having a small overlap or a huge overlap in scope and responsibilities (as in 1 and 2)? Is being a manager a smaller concept compared to being a leader (as in 3)? Could it be a smaller concept, but without elements that overlap entirely as represented by 4? Or without any overlap?

Resolving this for ourselves personally is important. It is also telling about our ideas on leadership and management.

I think diagram 4 represents my view best. I believe the role of a manager is a smaller one than of a leader. You can be a manager without ever being a real leader or displaying leadership qualities. Sure, you will not be a great manager, but you can probably get things done, and in some contexts that makes a difference too. Think of an army sergeant who is hated by one and all. We’ve met supervisors and managers like that. They may never win popularity contests or be placed in a higher leadership position, but they get things done. So they are managers.

In my view, you cannot be a ‘good’ manager without also having some leadership attributes. You may not need to have many, but the more the overlap, the more effective you would be as a manager. That is because in my books at least, simply getting things done is not enough.

Can you be a leader and a manager, both?

I believe you can. I don’t even look at it as a matter of choice. I feel you have to be both. So the differences, in my view, are those of perspective, more than anything else.

Look at the table from the American Management Association drawing the distinctions between managers and leaders. If you look at the table this way, the roles of the managers and leaders are very clear and distinct. If you are in a large organization, you would be able to easily identify which group you belong to. But in all other contexts, these roles overlap.

Leadership and management competencies

Has a short range perspective Has a long range perspective
Plans how and when Asks what and why
Eyes the bottom line Eyes the horizon
Imitates others Originates
Accepts the status quo Challenges the status quo
Seeks continuity Seeks change
Focuses on goals for improvement Focuses on goals for innovation
Power is based on position or authority Power is based on personal influence
Demonstrates skill in technical competence Demonstrates skill in selling the vision
Demonstrates skill in administration Demonstrates skill in dealing with ambiguity
Demonstrates skill in supervision Demonstrates skill in persuasion
Works towards employee compliance Works towards employee commitment
Plans tactics Plans strategy
Sets standard operation procedures (SOPs) Sets policy
Relies on analytical decision making style Relies on intuitive decision making style
Is risk cautious Takes the necessary risks
Uses a ‘transactional’ communications style Uses a ‘transformational’ communications style
Mostly uses an informational base of data and facts Uses and informational base, including ‘gut’ feelings
Builds success through maintenance of quality Builds success through employee commitment
Does not want to experience anarchy Does not want to experience inertia
Plans, budgets and designs detail steps. Develops the vision and the strategies to achieve it
Sets standards of performance Sets standards of excellence
Develops the detailed plan to achieve results Develops the future direction by gathering future trends

Roles you play depend on the context too

Managerial and leadership skill sets naturally differ. They are not the same thing. They are not even similar. They both matter. And they look at things from different perspectives. They call for certain actions and decisions in one context and for others in different contexts.

What does your current job call for?

In a small or medium sized business, you may be called a manager, or even a director, but your job includes those of a manager as well as those of a leader. The smaller the organization the higher the overlap likely to be. In some cases, they may pretty much appear like in diagram 3 above.

In much larger organizations which have many layers and job responsibilities that are clearly spelt out, there may be room for different roles of those possessing just one skill set. But even then, leadership qualities will never be entirely indispensable. In an uncertain world such as ours, leaders will always be in demand. The skills of a good manager are valuable as well.

What do you want to be – a leader or a manager?

All those things listed under Manager column seem too restricting for me. How about you?

Regardless of your current role, do you really want to be a person who is happy operating on a short range perspective without considering the long term? Just plan to get things done without asking why or what else could have made a difference? Do you want to merely keep trudging on with your eyes on the bottom line alone; even if it inevitably means ignoring business opportunities that may appear on the horizon? Do you want to be a mere copycat who does not wish to originate anything new?

How much of a future will you have within most businesses if you are a manager who just accepts the status quo without challenging it; without ever wanting to change or improve? Do you want to be someone who just continues things the way “it has always been done” without seeking even a little change? I can go on like this about each and every point in there. But you get my point.

What the 21st century workplaces call for

Will such a manager as the one I described above last long in the dynamic, changing workplaces of the 21st century? In most cases, no, they won’t. And we are only one and half decades into the century. But, in that short time, our workplaces have transformed to such a level that a Rip Van Winkle who has been asleep for 15 years will have real trouble adjusting to how things are in the modern workplace.

We have changed how we think about work, organize it and perform it. There is 24/7 connectivity (for better or for worse), teams collaborating on projects from around the world, and a whole lot more technology to deal with. Not everyone has to show up at work (in office) to get their work done. Our Rip Van Winkle would not know about Skype, handheld computing, LinkedIn or Goggle Glass. He would not know about MOOCS or the many free opportunities that are online for him to improve his professional knowledge. That’s just the basics, but you do get my point, don’t you?

Whether you want to be a manager or leader isn’t the most important question. It is what your current organizational context requires of you. The leaner, flatter, flexible organizations of today would want someone who can play the dual roles of manager and leader. Even large organizations are beginning to work smart, trying to innovate and become nimble. In most cases, they are unlikely to recruit one person to do the managing and another person to do the leading. They will instead look for people who have the skill sets to seamlessly shift between the two roles.

Many of us are used to this already. Many of us shift so seamlessly between the roles that if we are given the activity labels without separating them into columns with headings, we’d have a tough time deciding whether it’s the role of a manager or a leader.

I saw this happening at a workshop recently where a group of executive directors of a small company were having trouble deciding with quite a few descriptions. Where does ‘building success through employee motivation’ go? Is it managers or leaders whose ‘power is based on personal influence’? How about ‘demonstrating skill in persuasion’, under which column should it go? How about the ‘employee commitment’ labels? Does that go with managers or leaders? And ‘setting standards of excellence’? Who does that?

Yes, in some cases, just taking a factor alone, it is difficult to say whose role it should be even though it looks clear cut in a table along with the opposites. In the end, most of them who have worked their way up from out-of-high school to become company directors agreed that they must each be capable of playing both roles.

The division between managing and leading is an artificial construct, not a practical or realistic one. Unless under very rare circumstances—such as in certain government positions in certain types of un-democratic regimes which do not value personal initiative or in highly structured organizational set ups as in the armed forces—you will need both skill sets to do a good job.

What skill sets do your career plans call for?

What type of work do your personal aspirations call for? Whether your ambition is to run your family farm, your family business, you need both leadership and management skill sets. The same applies whether you want to go into a profession or vocation, start a business or work in a small, medium or large business organization. You need skills of leadership and management whether you plan to work in government organizations, in the nonprofit sector or in new types of organizations that are cropping such as in social entrepreneurship or limited profit organizations.

You will need to list skills you already possess and what you need to develop. You must work on these skills even if your current job constrains your capacity for either skill set.

Ambidextrous organizations of today need versatile people

An ambidextrous organization is one which is capable of exploiting its current business potential while also exploring future business potential. The challenge is of effectively balancing the tensions that arise from pursuing these two divergent goals. Companies that succeed fare better in terms of sales growth, performance, innovation and market value compared to those who do not. They also have better chances of survival because they are likely to be ready for seismic changes that may arise in their industries.

Don’t all organizations do this anyway? They should be, but they are not doing it well enough, according to a lot of research findings.[1] Just the data from US S&P 500 Corporations— Standard & Poor’s 500 is a stock market index based on the market capitalizations of 500 large companies listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ—shows that around 80 percent of firms under-emphasized exploration and over-emphasized exploitation.[2] Now, can you imagine how difficult it must be for European small and medium sized enterprises to master ambidexterity?

Smaller businesses lacking resources to set up structures to pursue a form of ambidexterity that rely on people rather than on structures. This is called contextual ambidexterity. It calls for versatile leaders and followers who can seamlessly shift between managing current business potential to exploration activities and innovation.

How much more will companies trying to build ambidexterity into their corporate DNA pay for people who can eye the bottom line and scan the horizon? How about those who know to balance caution and risk; or those who can bring in a long range perspective but are also capable for addressing short term issues? How much will they value you if you knew how to develop the vision for their business or business unit, but can also look at plans, budgets and nitty-gritty stuff? How much will they value capacity for creativity, and innovation? How much will they value execution?


You may try to split hairs about the differences between management and leadership. But those who are in greatest demand are those who possess both skill sets.


[1] Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman. Organizational Ambidexterity: Past, Present, and Future. ACAD MANAGE PERSPECT November 1, 2013   vol. 27 no. 4 324-338. Accessed on 19 October 2014 at’Reilly%20and%20Tushman%20AMP%20Ms%20051413_c66b0c53-5fcd-46d5-aa16-943eab6aa4a1.pdf

[2] Uotila, J., Maula, M., Keil, T., & Shaker, Z. (2009). Exploration, Exploitation, and Financial Performance: Analysis of S&P 500 Corporations. Strategic Management Journal. 30(2), 221-31.


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