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Take your corners please: Management v leadership, who wins?


Take your corners pleaseWhat's in a name? Bob Selden looks at the thorny issue of management v leadership. His research reveals four conditions that must exist for leadership to flourish. Read on to discover the essential difference between the two and what you need for leadership success.

When talking with the facilitator of a PD workshop recently in Lausanne, he was apologising that his company’s name had management rather than leadership in its title. He mentioned that the firm had been going for 25 years (which speaks volumes for their success) and that the world had now moved on. But because of their success, they could not change their name to include leadership.

Photo of Bob Selden"Leadership cannot be taught or learned, it must be earned."

It seems that no longer do we talk about management - leadership is considered the fashionable thing to discuss and to teach.

I was quick to jump to the defence of his firm’s founders. I believe, that - despite whatever the current fashion is - they got it right. They are a company that specialises in helping managers improve their performance. They teach management not leadership. Management can be taught. Leadership cannot be taught or learned, it must be earned.

Where did all this talk of leadership come from?

If one looks at management development literature, it is only over the last 15 - and particularly the last 10 - years that leadership is mentioned at all. Prior to that, leadership was mostly only assigned to historical political figures such as Napoleon, Churchill, Kennedy and so on. These were people who earned the title leader. Leader was never assigned to organisational supremos. Nor was it given to any manager. It seems that some writers, keen to establish what makes a great manager great, settled on the term leadership as a distinguishing factor. Then they tried to define it. Then we tried to measure it. Some of us even tried to teach it! And there our troubles began.

My contention is that one becomes a manager when one signs on for the job, be it head of the country, firm, school, department or first-line supervisor. One only becomes a leader when other people say so.

So a person given the title of manager by the organisation will automatically have people do things for them (either well or not so well depending on how well the people are managed) because of what the person is, not, initially, who the person is. Only other people, the manager’s team and other stakeholders, can bestow on the manager - whatever his or her level, including the CEO - the informal title of leader.

In other words, the organisation gives out a corporate manager’s 'hat' that lets everyone in the organisation know that this person is now officially a manager. Then, the people, when they believe in the manager and have faith in the manager, give the manager his or her leadership badge, their badge of honour.

This definition of leadership, rather than focusing on the inputs, such as personal skills, characteristics, competencies, traits etc, focuses on the outputs. Managers are judged on their status as a leader in the eyes of their followers and stakeholders by what they do and achieve.

The essence of leadership

I have a short test that I often pose to managers to test their current leadership status: 'Would the people who reports to you and the other key stakeholders whose support you need, do the things you currently ask them to do if you were not officially the manager?' If they can truthfully answer 'Yes' then there’s a high likelihood that they have established the outputs that encourage others to follow them.

"Management is mandatory. Not managing effectively and efficiently to meet one’s assigned responsibilities means certain organisational death. Leadership on the other hand, is optional."

What are these outputs that set leader-managers apart from mere managers? In conjunction with a colleague Dennis Pratt, I have been conducting focus groups within organisations over the last 10 years to tease out these conditions (these focus groups were used to aid the design of the management development process). My research suggests there are four conditions within the group or team that exist when a leadership function is flourishing. Leadership by the way, occurs at all levels of the organisation.

The essence of leadership is to create the four conditions that encourage others to follow. When leadership is evident within the group or team, there is:

  • A shared understanding of the environment - 'We know what we face'
  • A shared vision of where we are going - 'We know what we have to do'
  • A shared set of organisational values - 'We are in this together'
  • A shared feeling of power - 'We can do this'

You’ll notice that the word shared is in highlighted. That’s because leadership is a function and does not necessarily reside with one person. Whilst the manager will most likely take the lead in establishing these conditions, when leadership takes hold, it is likely to be distributed throughout the team or group – various people taking a leadership role as and when needed (Charles Handy called this 'distributed leadership').

Management is mandatory. Not managing effectively and efficiently to meet one’s assigned responsibilities means certain organisational death. Leadership on the other hand, is optional.

As trainers, my belief is that we should continue to focus on helping managers improve their managerial performance. For those who want to take that extra leadership step, we can help them give birth to the leadership function within their group or team by providing the tools, coaching and guidance to establish the four outputs mentioned earlier.

It’s interesting to note that my discussion with the PD facilitator I mentioned earlier took place at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne. IMD is not about to change its name to include leadership. Whilst I’m sure they spend a lot of time discussing leadership, I’m certain they are actually teaching management. They must be doing it quite well, as last week they were ranked equal first with Harvard by their clients as providers of best non-degree executive business programs.

Bob Selden is the author of the recently published “What To Do When You Become The Boss” – a self help book for new managers. He also coaches at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney. You can contact Bob via

To read his previous feature 'Making a song and dance about decisions' go to:


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