Leader or Manager?

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze the difference between leaders and managers

a chess boardWe’ve used the word “leader” and we’ve used the word “manager.” You may think they’re interchangeable, but they aren’t. They are different.

Abraham Zaleznik, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, was the first to write about the differences between leaders and managers. His article, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  challenged the traditional view of management, which centered on organizational structure and processes.[1] Organizations, at the time, developed managers with a focus on process and control. Zaleznik argued that these same organizations were missing the opportunity to develop leaders by concentrating on this, because they were really two different types of people.

Zaleznik charged that the approach of the typical organization was omitting essential leadership elements of inspiration, vision and human passion from their concept and development of people. He went on to define a manager as someone who seeks order, control and rapid resolution of problems. A leader, he went on to say, is more like an artist, and “tolerates chaos and lack of structure.” Organizations were too often not creating an environment where leaders could flourish.

In Zaleznik’s view, both leaders and managers contribute to the organization. Leaders contribute by advocating change and new approaches, and do so by gaining the commitment of employees. Managers contribute by advocating stability and the status quo, exercising authority, carrying out responsibility and determining how work will get accomplished.

John Kotter, current Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, had some additional opinions on the differences between leadership and management. In 1990, Kotter proposed that leadership and management were two distinct, yet complementary systems of action in organizations. Specifically, leadership is about coping with change, and management is about coping with complexity.

Kotter’s view of the leadership process involves:

  • Developing a vision for the organization
  • Aligning people with that vision through communication
  • Motivating people to action through empowerment and basic needs fulfillment

Conversely, Kotter’s view of the management process involves:

  • Planning and budgeting
  • Organizing and staffing
  • Controlling and problem solving

Here’s an explanation of Professor Kotter’s point of view from the man himself:

Why is it important for us to understand the difference between leaders and managers? As John Kotter indicated, it comes down to business needs. The video above, which was made in 2013, talked about the importance of leaders in a time when organizations were selecting and rewarding based on management skills.  There are not, Kotter said, enough leaders to take us through these swiftly changing times, and in a time when change is the norm, it’s the leader you need.

Practice Question

Time has gone by, and perhaps we’re now putting too much emphasis on the talents of the leader and not the manager. Organizations need managers to lead and leaders to manage—certainly in hiring a manager they are given the authority to lead. Managers today need to ask themselves what kind of guidance their teams need to turn vision into reality, and that’s needed at every level in the organization.

  • Zaleznik proposed that managers were results driven and leaders were creative artists.
  • Kotter proposed that leaders navigated change and managers navigated complexity.
  • Researcher Warren Bennis said, “Managers are people who do things right, and leaders are people who do right things.”

Organizations need both.


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  1. Zaleznik, Abraham. "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" 1977. Accessed May 08, 2019 from Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2004/01/managers-and-leaders-are-they-different.