There are numerous differences between leadership and management, but Warren Bennis encapsulates them nicely in his groundbreaking 1989 book, "On Becoming a Leader", explaining, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”
Many have since extrapolated on Bennis’s work, with the key points usually remaining the same: leaders conceive original ideas while managers implement daily operations; leaders inspire and motivate while managers organize and report; leaders constantly scan the horizon while managers focus on the bottom line. These ideologies usually find managers emerging as uninspired but necessary functionaries, toiling away beneath the far more luminous leaders.
However, no matter how useful these distinctions have been to business literature and theory, in the real world, it’s unwise to disengage the practice of management from leadership, or vice versa. Executives who reach the top only to consign themselves—as many have—to acting only as leaders often end up placing impossible strain on their companies, losing touch with daily operations while generating big ideas in isolation. Likewise, managers who fail to become leaders miss out on the opportunities ever-present in a global economy powered by knowledge workers. The most effective executives know when to lead and when to manage, bridging a gap that thought leaders great and small have spent decades establishing.
In fact, the gap itself may be narrowing. The emergence of the knowledge worker, whose value lies as much in the execution of his or her ideas, has made clear that a more person-centered management style, or management infused with the principles of leadership, is necessary for businesses to adapt. Technological innovation and an increasingly interconnected world mean companies across all industries are facing opportunities, many of which initially present as challenges, at an ever-growing rate. The manager of the past, walking a line of workers with clipboard in hand, wouldn’t understand how to capitalize on these fleeting chances.
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But great leaders who also know how to manage don’t need to walk the line with a clipboard. They already possess the manager’s granular knowledge of daily operations, and they never stop striving to learn more. They listen to customers, entry-level employees, even competitors, building a big-picture frame of reference not around abstractions, but around concrete reality as it manifests on the ground. Steve Jobs, for example, was famous for dropping in unexpectedly at Apple stores.
Furthermore, today’s successful executives are capable of switching gears instantaneously between the manager’s process-oriented eye for detail and the leader’s long-range perspective. In a word, they’re agile, and agile businesses have proven to be the most successful, especially in times of economic change or crisis.
Venture capitalist and entrepreneur Randy Komisar, who has launched numerous successful tech start-ups over the last quarter century, including Claris Corporation and TiVo, describes business agility as responsiveness to “constant provocations” in an interview with Fast Company, emphasizing that “things will change and that’s OK.” It therefore stands to reason that our managers and our leaders must be adaptive and committed to personal growth in order to navigate the changing terrain of modern business.
A dedication to learning more about leadership and management isn’t exclusive to those at the top. Professionals at any stage in their careers can benefit from making continuous development in both skill sets an ongoing focus. Despite ample literature about the distinction between management and leadership and what makes leaders effective, a drought in agile leadership is currently afflicting the U.S., and only leaders who know how to manage—and are committed to fostering greatness in others—are capable of addressing it. As Warren Bennis famously stated, “taking charge of your own learning is part of taking charge of your life,” and great leaders simply never stop learning, whether they’ve reached the top of the ladder or are just beginning to climb it.