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Leading vs. Managing: A False Choice

by Bob Sutton on December 8, 2010


bob-sutton's picture

Leading vs. Managing: A False Choice

As you're putting together the guest list for your holiday parties you might want to consider this: not once, but twice over the last five years I've embarked on an in-depth review of the academic and practical literature on leadership. The first time was for a 2006 book with Jeff Pfeffer, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense. The second time was for my new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Tens of thousands of books have been written on leadership and there are several academic journals devoted entirely to the subject, including The Leadership Quarterly and The Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. Perhaps the most definitive review and integration of the leadership literature was Bass and Stogdill's 1,200-page Handbook of Leadership, which was published in 1990 (and still does the best job of making sense of the literature, for my money). And if you really want a long book on leadership, you can get the four-volume Encyclopedia of Leadership, which at 2,120 pages weighs in at 15 pounds, and costs a whopping $800.

Fun stuff!

But of course, the point of the exercise wasn't to develop my cocktail party chit chat--or even to understand and absorb all of that literature. It was about developing a point of view on the themes that matter most--a crucial task for any leader awash in the ever-churning cascade of business advice, theories, prescriptions and frameworks.

In my reviews of the writings and research, I kept bumping into an old and popular distinction that has always bugged me: leading versus managing. The brilliant and charming Warren Bennis has likely done more to popularize this distinction than anyone else. He wrote in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader that "There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial." And in one of his most famous lines, he added, "Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing."

Although this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree (see this recent interview with Randy Komisar for a great discussion of the distinction), it has unintended negative effects on how some leaders view and do their work. Some leaders now see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere "management" work.

Worse still, this distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve. I remember hearing of a cell phone company CEO, for example, who never visited the stores where his phones were sold--because that was a management task that was beneath him--and kept pushing strategies that reflected a complete misunderstanding of customer experiences. (Perhaps he hadn't heard of how often Steve Jobs drops in at Apple stores.)

That story is typical. "Big picture only" leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway.

I am all for dreaming, Some of the most unlikely and impressive things have been done by dreamers. But one characteristic of the dreamers I respect -- Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Jobs, folks at Pixar like Ed Catmull and Brad Bird -- is that they also have a remarkably deep understanding of the industry they work in and the people they lead, and they are willing to get very deep into the weeds. This ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture is also evident in the leaders I admire most who aren't usually thought of as dreamers. Anne Mulcahy's efforts to turn around Xerox were successful in part because of her in-depth knowledge of the company's operations; she was very detail-oriented during the crucial early years of her leadership. Bill George, one of Jim Collins' level 5 leaders and a fellow MIX Maverick, told me that, in his first nine months as CEO of Medtronic (a medical device company), he spent about 75% of his time watching surgeons put Medtronic devices in patients and talking with doctors and nurses, patients, families, and hospital executives to learn the ropes.

I've written about before, especially in The Knowing-Doing Gap (with Jeff Pfeffer). But the issue seems to be rearing its head in more and more conversations--with project managers, for example, who have been assigned tasks by naive and overconfident leaders--things like implementing IT systems and building software. When they couldn't succeed because of absurd deadlines, tiny staffs, small budgets, and in some cases, because it simply wasn't technically possible to do what the leaders wanted, they were blamed. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could exist, and telling people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done.

I am not rejecting the distinction between leadership and management, but I am saying that the best leaders do something that might properly be called a mix of leadership and management. At a minimum, they lead in a way that constantly takes into account the importance of management. Meanwhile, the worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies.

Therefore, harking back to the Bennis theorem I quoted above, let me propose a corollary: "To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right, and to make sure they actually get done."

When we glorify leadership too much, and management too little, there is great risk of failing to act on this obvious but powerful message.


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virginia-ipeneva's picture

Great walk through and analysis! Perfect rewording of a leadership/management mantra!
What do you think about the trend named “Simplicity”?
And the entire trend of creating management mantras?

john-doe_2's picture
Wouldn't management be considered a subset of the leadership skills set? To say you can have influence or control over something you don't understand is much like saying you can have an outcome, but which is not up to you. You are either leading with understanding or managing with none. To grant this label to someone who does neither would be a misappropriated word.
A leader without management skills is too long of an expression for dreamer. It is only when they can interface with implementors through shared knowledge that they can truly be called a leader. Thanks for calling this out.
mike-richardson's picture
Thanks Bob - I couldn't agree more - its an "and" not an "or" and I think you are right on - the debate about leadership vs management is so old, out of date and irrelevant.  That's why, in my work, I use the metaphor of "In the Driving Seat".  In the Driving Seat of our cars, if we are not fully filling that seat with leadership and management (remotely defaulting into leadership or management) then bad things happen.  Yet, usually, we arrive at our desired destination, safely, on time and ready for what's next.  So we know we can do this.  The question is, when we park in the lot outside our office and walk inside, where do these natural abilities go and how can we be more in the same mode In the Driving Seat of our business as we are In the Driving Seat of our car?  That's the subject of my Hack entitled, "In the Driving Seat of Organizational Agility: translating strategy and execution into traction in turbulent times" (at:, a common thread through my other contributions at:, and I have a book coming out this year which speaks to all of this as well.
lim-liat's picture
I suspect that such thinking of "Leaders vs Managers" is due to the either-or-thinking framework taught in school. The Ancient Chinese thinking framework of "Yin-Yang" embraces both end-points and apply them dynamically to the situation. See Yin-Yang Thinking Framework - Innovative and Critical Thinking.
willy-a-sussland's picture
Yes, there are a lot of myths that need to be dispelled. Yet, in my opinion the distinction between leading and managing makes eminent sense if you understand "leading" as the fact of driving people, and "managing" as the fact of optimizing tangible resources such as money, machines etc. The notion of "the management" can be used to include both leadership and managing.

The systemic approach suggests that we start by laying out the different elements so as to understand their interactions and interdependencies within a given system such as running a company. Distinguishing between leading and managing applies the systemic approach. It helps evaluating peoples' strengths and weaknesses vs. the job specifications.

I advocate that innovation-projects be structured as follows (1) ideation (2) investigation (3) imagination (4) initiatives. Each phase of the project requires an appropriate configuration of leading-talents and of managing-talents.

Your blog is certainly well written, but the distinction of leading and of managing is indeeed a valid one, and it is becoming increasingly important as we badly need more original entrepreneurs that drive people and fewer civil-servants that follow procedures.

Kind regards, Willy A. Sussland

steve-denning's picture
The title of the article indicates that "leading vs managing" is a false choice. Yet Bob says he doesn't reject the distinction. Indeed the article appears to uphold and confirm the distinction between leading and managing:

The article suggests that leading should also be a mix of leadership and management. The article does not address the question of whether extent managing should also be leadership. But surely it does. Surely managers should also be a mix of both leadership and management. If so, what exactly is the distinction between leading and managing?

Further thoughts on these issues here:

Steve Denning

anna-smith's picture
Management rocks! Individual leadership? - Overrated, IMHO. I love this post by Jim Stroup, Fallacies of Individual Leadership.