Manager or leader, which are you? How to distinguish between leadership and management is a never ending question. One problem is that some writers don’t separate them at all. Also, we have too many concepts of leadership. Finally, management is seen in a negative light.

Why Identify Leadership and Management?

Those who refuse to differentiate the two concepts envisage a senior executive in a role with power over a group. For them, it is the same person who does both roles and the two roles are at best a slight difference in emphasis. When you throw in style differences, it is argued, that there is no way to tell them apart.

Confusion About the Meaning of Leadership

Most of our thinking about leadership focuses on the person at the head of a group – the president of a country. the chief executive of a company, the chairperson of a committee or the chief of a tribe. But what about the leadership of Al Gore. He is showing leadership to people around the world who don’t report to him. Whatever groups he might be heading, the main impact of his leadership is outside any particular group. The same is true of Martin Luther King Jr. who showed leadership to the US government when the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional. This was without being in a member of the government let alone the head of it.

We also use the term leadership in some casual ways that adds to the confusion. We talk about someone leading us in song, leading us to safety through a swamp, or leading a tour. Organizational writers used to say that leaders or managers were those people who provided direction. Now, admitting that direction is to hard for any one person to determine, they have switched to saying that leaders facilitate the identification of new directions in others by being catalysts.

Then there is what might be called thought leadership, where employees with good ideas for new products or better ways of working convince their bosses to adopt their proposals.

The Real Meaning of Leadership

The truth is that our concept of leadership is evolving. It is changing faster in high tech businesses that are driven by innovation than it is in slower changing organizations like charities, communities and stable public sector organizations. What is happening is that the power upon which leadership used to be based is melting away. At one time you had to be physically strong to get to the top, then it was a matter of having a powerful personality. But now we have a war of ideas and it is the power of innovation that determines organizational direction. Thought leadership is the new power. As they say: content is king. Thought leadership is not about holding a position of power over people, which means that all employees can show leadership even if for a moment.

Leadership vs Management

Management is really a role, leadership is an activity. Think of a mother teaching her young child to count to 10. Being a mother means occupying a role, one you will have for life. But teaching is just something the mother does occasionally. Similarly, managers occupy roles in organizations and they occasionally show leadership. But showing leadership now means promoting new directions. It is managers who manage, develop and coach people, because it is their role to get things done as efficiently as possible.

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