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Are Leaders and Managers Fundamentally Different?

There's evidence that this distinction shouldn’t exist.

Key points

  • Too much is made about the distinction between managers and leaders.
  • An irony is that we want our managers to develop leadership while believing they are different than leaders.
  • Leadership occurs when leaders/managers and followers work together, so the distinction makes no sense.

“Managers do things right, leaders do the right things”

This a well-known saying and represents a distinction that is often made between managers and leaders. The assumption is that managers are all about productivity and efficiency and leadership is a higher calling that emphasizes accurate decision-making and choosing a good or ethical direction. There are, however, several problems with making this distinction between managers and leaders.

First, it downplays the role of the manager and elevates the leader. This perpetuates the power dynamic that leaders are the persons at the top while managers work “in the trenches.” As a result, research shows that leaders get more than their share of credit when there is success and more of the blame in failures— the "romance of leadership" notion (Meindl, et al., 1985) that sets all eyes on the leader.

Second, it suggests that managers are focused on keeping things running but are separated from contributing to setting the organizational agenda and goals and ethical responsibility, because those are the purview of the leader.

Third, it not only diminishes the role of the manager but can also lead to a passing-the-buck attitude in managers when bad things happen (“I was just following orders”; “It’s the leader’s fault”).

I’m going to argue that this distinction is irrelevant. Both successful managers and leaders need to focus on leadership. They need to set direction for followers and the organization, motivate, develop good working relationships with stakeholders, be positive role models, and focus on achieving outcomes.

Here are some more reasons why we should not distinguish between management and leadership:

Peter Drucker’s Views on Managers

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, viewed managers and management as a high-level and noble endeavor. In many ways, Drucker’s definition of management is very similar to how we might define leadership. Sometimes Drucker is given credit for the opening quote above, but I know this is not the case, because Drucker rarely used the term leader and he believed effective managers should do the right thing.

How Do Scholars Define Leadership?

Interestingly, it is often management and leadership scholars who make the distinction between leaders and managers, but there is irony here. In departments and schools of management, the mission is often about developing leaders, but students in the programs are often referred to as “managers” and their MBA degrees are in business administration—clearly more of a management function than one of leadership. In research, to recruit “leaders,” scholars often use MBA students, assuming that they are indeed “leaders.” So, a great deal of leadership research is conducted on “managers.”

Why Make the Distinction?

I would argue that effective managers need to behave as leaders—keeping true to the mission, helping to set direction, developing followers, and motivating everyone toward goal attainment, all while doing the right thing. Conversely, leaders who are out of touch with the day-to-day management process in their departments and organizations are not going to be effective leaders. Management and leadership go hand-in-hand.

In Any Case, What About the Followers?

Leadership is not something that leaders (or managers) do alone. Leadership is co-created by leaders/managers and followers working together. So, again, the distinction is irrelevant. If managers or leaders are not engaging followers in the process, no leadership occurs.

Managers Can Fail When They Don’t Act Like Leaders

Think of recent organizational scandals and failures— Wells Fargo, Boeing, Volkswagen. In many cases, the ethical failures didn’t necessarily start at the top. There were managers involved at lower levels of the organization who simply didn’t do the right thing. There is an obligation for leaders/managers (and followers) to enact leadership to do the right thing and to get the job done correctly.


Meindl, J. R., Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative science quarterly, 78-102.

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