The Real Difference Between Leadership and Management

The Real Difference Between Leadership and Management

I attended a presentation given by the business author and former Gallup researcher, Marcus Buckingham at a conference in Houston. One of the highlights of his presentation was how he defined the difference between leadership and management. 

Up until that point, much of the business literature seemed to imply that leaders and managers were two different types of people and that leadership was a “good thing”, whereas management was a “bad thing”; some kind of a throwback to the industrial age. Somehow the term “manager” had become a dirty word that no one wanted to be associated with. 

The reason for this was a high-profile (but unhelpful) business book that was wildly popular at the time. The book implied that leaders were future-thinking, risk-taking visionaries who motivated and inspired people, whereas managers were an inferior breed of controlling, stability-minded administrators. 

Marcus shared research from the Gallup organization and explained that leadership and management are functional roles that need to be performed; not a statement about what sort of person you are. And both functions are vital to business success. 

The role of leadership

Leadership is about painting a picture of a better future, specifying the actions that need to be taken to realize that future, and rallying people to work toward their achievement. Leadership is often a “one to many” endeavor, focused on making sure the organization chooses the right strategic moves, and that people’s goals are aligned with those moves. 

The role of management

Management, on the other hand, is about coaching people to realize their full potential. To manage people effectively you need to figure out what each person’s unique strengths are, and coach them to fully develop and leverage those strengths. Management is often a “one to one” endeavor, focused on making sure each person is playing their part to execute the strategy effectively.

Some people are great at leadership, but not management, whereas others are great at management, but not leadership. A few rare individuals are great at performing both functions. 

The role of specialists

Many people aren’t “naturally wired” to perform leadership or management functions well. That is perfectly fine. We need specialists who can focus on performing their roles to a high standard, without having to worry about performing any leadership or management duties. 

A common mistake (referred to as the “Peter Principle”) occurs when a strong performer in a functional role is promoted to manage the team, but unfortunately, they fail miserably at their new management role. You see, not everyone is cut out to manage a team of people, and that is OK. Some people are much better suited to being specialists; and this specialization needs to be encouraged with appropriate recognition, job title, and remuneration. Don’t make people feel obligated to manage a team of people just to earn a higher income and be perceived as achieving career success.

The best salesperson should not be appointed sales manager. The best software developer should not be appointed product manager. The person who has been around the longest should not be appointed as manager. Only people who have natural coaching talent and a real passion for managing a team of people should be appointed to the role of manager.

“The Peter Principle” is a management concept formulated by Laurence Peter. He described the common problem where managers get chosen based on how they perform in their current role, rather than on their abilities relevant to the intended role. Inevitably, people “rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Management Myths 

The research conducted by Buckingham and the team at Gallup identified the best practices of the world’s top-performing managers and exposed many myths. The research was documented in the books, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, and Now Discover Your Strengths, both of which I recommend, along with the Strengths-finder assessments that they contain.

Here’s a section of key findings:

Myth: Management is a stepping stone to leadership

Research shows: The core strengths of great leaders and great managers are very different

Myth: A leader is a more advanced form of manager

Research shows: Both roles are vitally important. One is not better than the other.

Myth: Management is not as important as leadership

Research shows: Middle managers (front-line supervisors) are the prime catalyst for superior employee performance in an organization

Myth: The key to success is to fix people’s weaknesses

Research shows: The key to success is to put people in roles where they can play to their strengths most of the time

Myth: You can be good at anything you want if you work hard enough

Research shows: You are naturally wired to be exceptional at certain things only. The key to success is to understand what your core strengths are and spend more time playing to these strengths

Myth: Managers should spend most of their time trying to “fix” struggling staff members

Research shows: Managers get the best returns on their time when they coach and develop their most productive staff members

Myth: Poor performers can be “fixed” with willpower and training

Research shows: The best-performing managers demonstrate tough love. They provide coaching and support, but they do not tolerate poor performance. If a person cannot meet the agreed standards within an agreed time frame, they either find the person another role that matches their strengths, or they remove them from the team as soon as possible

Myth: Treat people as you wish to be treated

Research shows: Treat each person differently according to how they like to be treated

Myth: Set expectations for people by defining the right steps

Research shows: Set expectations by defining the right outcomes, and give people the authority to figure out how to achieve those outcomes.

Myth: Develop people through promotions

Research shows: Develop people by helping them find, stay in, and specialize in roles that are a good fit with their natural strengths and talents

Myth: Provide more pay, perks, and prestige the further one climbs the corporate ladder

Research shows: Provide bands of pay, perks, and prestige for higher levels of achievement in every role, without making people feel like they need to manage a team of people in order to feel like they are progressing in their careers.


These research findings were revelatory when I was first exposed to them. Every role in an organization requires different talents, so we should structure our organizations to recognize and reward each person for the value of their contribution; not make people feel compelled to perform leadership or management duties in order to be perceived as having a successful career.

You see, our brains are “wired” to be naturally talented at certain roles. Yes, we can learn skills and become “good enough” at any activity we put our minds to, but we will only be “truly great” at roles we are naturally wired for.

The key to organization success (and personal fulfillment) is to figure out what each person’s natural strengths are, and put people in roles where they get to play to their strengths most of the time.


Until next time…