Differentiating Leaders from Managers
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The concepts of leadership and management are difficult areas to define due to the large overlap in meaning and in function. While there are significant similarities in leadership and management there are also key differences that separate the two concepts. It is entirely possible that a manager can be a poor leader or for a leader to be a poor manager. When defining these two concepts the important difference is found in their purpose and vision.
According to Northouse (2013), “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2013). In this sense, a leader can be a manager and vice visa, but not always. To understand this one must define a manager. The manager while also carrying out the responsibility of leading individuals towards a common goal is different from the leader in the sense of function. Mangers share the common functions of planning, organizing, staffing, and controlling (Northouse, 2013). The purpose of the manager is found in these four functions and it is the responsibility of the manager to carry out these functions in order to lead workers to an end.
The end or goal is where management and leadership differ in meaning. Leaders are the individuals who influence workers to the common goal. This is often referred to as the vision of the organization. When seen in this framework, managers are also followers of the leader and utilize the four functions of management to actualize the vision of the organization. For example, Steve Jobs was the CEO and leader of Apple and he created the vision for Apple along with its mission. The managers at Apple were tasked with accomplishing this mission. Jobs was a visionary and was the chief architect of the Mac and iPhone products (Netflix, 2012). Although this vision of innovation may have been what managers sought to achieve, Jobs was not a good manager in many ways. He was considered erratic and dominating (Netflix, 2012). He would dominate individuals and use fear and threats to accomplish his goals (Netflix, 2012). What is interesting about this example is the fact that from the external view most consumers did not see this side of the leader. His influence over the public was dynamic and created an almost cult-like following with the Apple products (Netflix, 2012). Jobs in this sense truly defines the difference between leader and manager due to his ability to create a vision and influence others to towards its actualization.
In many ways, the defining characteristic between leaders and managers (or followers) is the ability to influence. Leaders appear to have the skill or ability to influence others to accomplish their goal. If this is the case, does this mean that leadership is a product of traits or processes? The answer to this may be that leadership is a combination of particular traits combined with a process for leading.
As early as the 1950s, researchers were identifying successful leaders and the traits they possessed (Stodgill, 1957). From this research, the theory of trait leadership would emerge which posits that individuals who have certain traits will have the potential to be leaders. According to Stodgill (1957), traits and skills that effective leaders share include adaptability, ambition, cooperativeness, dependability, and many others (Stodgill, 1957).
Although this theory of trait leadership has support, there is also considerable evidence that leaders are the result of situational forces or processes that make individuals strong leaders. Stodgill’s research would eventually show that many leaders maintained similar traits but there was no pattern for these traits that distinguished the leaders from followers. It was also found that those followers may also share many of these traits but did not become leaders.
In contrast to trait theory, process theorists view leadership as “a phenomenon that resides in the context of the interactions between leaders and followers and makes leadership available to everyone. As a process, leadership can be observed in leader behaviors…and can be learned” (Northouse, 2013). Within this context, a leader can learn to be a leader by following another leader and learning his or her process. The other factor in this theory is that idea of every leadership process differs due to circumstances such as industry or experience with a workforce. There is support for this idea as there are many different forms of leadership and these different types of leadership work in different circumstances. If one looks at the example of Steve Jobs again, it is apparent that Apple was highly dependent on Jobs. Although domineering and sometimes vicious, Jobs ultimately made Apple a success when other leaders could not (Netflix, 2012). For example, in 1985 Steve Jobs left Apple after being forced out by the board of directors (Netflix, 2012). The company would have to bring Jobs back years later as it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy (Netflix, 2012). Under Jobs's leadership, Apple became the most valuable company in the world. Why were other leaders not able to carry on after Jobs left? The answer to this question is likely due to the fact that Jobs's personality and traits (however negative or positive) were essential to the vision of Apple and to its operations. While another leader might have been able to fill the process of leadership, he could not influence the organization towards success and actualization of the vision.
When one looks at leadership and management, the differences between these concepts can be confusing. However, it is clear that there is some significant difference between the leader and the manager which is evidenced by their different roles and ability to influence followers. When seen in this way, it is likely that the process and trait theories of leadership both have merit but likely need to be considered in a combined manner when assessing leadership. As such, it may be possible to create leadership through a process providing that the individual possesses many of the leadership traits necessary for the task.
Netflix (Producer), Sen, P. (Writer), & Sen, P. (Director). (2012). Steve jobs: The lost interview [Motion Picture]. USA.
Northouse, P. (2013). Leadership: Theory & Practice (6th Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Stodgill, R. M. (Ed), & Coons, A.E (Ed). (1957). Leader behavior: Its description and measurement. Oxford, England: Ohio State University, Bureau of Business.
Vincent Triola. Fri, Jan 08, 2021. What’s the Difference Between Leadership & Management? Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/what-s-the-difference-between-leadership-management