Leaders vs. Managers: The Real Answer to What's Better


Leadership is about where you’re going and your journey along the way. It involves changing the status quo in order to create a desired future. Leadership behaviors include:

  • Challenging the current way of doing things: searching for opportunities and taking risks
  • Creating shared meaning and understanding of actions and events
  • Inspiring a shared vision
  • Fostering collaboration and strengthening others
  • Recognizing and celebrate accomplishments and small wins
  • Setting an example: acting consistently, creating trust
  • Moving forward with self-confidence, focusing on a vision not obstacles, learning from mistakes

Management is about implementation. It’s about developing yourself and others to become high performers, putting processes in place that support accomplishing goals and ensuring that tasks are accomplished well. Management behaviors include:

  • Goal setting
  • Planning work
  • Defining roles
  • Organizing resources
  • Measuring progress
  • Developing supportive relationships: listening, encouraging and praising
  • Directing and facilitating progress

Research Results*

In 1986 I set out to determine which leadership or management behaviors create high performance teams. Over a two year period, I collected and analyzed data from over 500 employees who rated their bosses on how much they demonstrated both of these behaviors and the level of their team’s performance.

The results were not what I expected. You can see them in this 90 second video.

High performance teams need both management and leadership. It’s not necessary for the leader to provide management if the team can manage itself. But the leader must always have a focus on the vision.

Is it better to lead than to manage? The answer is, “no.” Both leadership and management behaviors are needed for a team to move to high performance. Leaders need to either provide the needed management behaviors or ensure they are being provided.

Managers need to lead and leaders need to manage.

In 1985 Warren Bennis said: Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right. At that time, his statement was helpful because business was over-focused on management theory and techniques, without much thought about the role of vision and strategy.

However, we have now gone too far in the other direction by over-valuing leadership and de-valuing management.

It’s time to retire the conversation about which is better.

First of all it’s insulting. The issue is not who people are. It doesn’t matter whether your title is leader, executive, administrator, manager, supervisor, chief, head, or lead.

It also doesn’t matter what your level is in the organization. In order to execute on a vision, both leadership and management are needed at every level.

The conversation needs to shift to which behavior is required in a particular moment. 

The more important question for discussion is: What does your team need from you right now to journey successfully from vision to reality? 



*Leadership behaviors were measured using The Leadership Practices Inventory developed by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner and The Leader Behavior Questionnaire developed by Marshall Sashkin, based on research by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. The list of leadership behaviors comes from their research. Management behaviors were measured by the Leader Behavior Analysis developed by Ken Blanchard, Ron Hambleton, Drea Zigarmi, and Douglas Forsyth and by the LBQ-M developed by Marshall Sashkin. The list of management behaviors comes from research originally conducted at Ohio State University (Stogdill and Coons, 1957) and University of Michigan (Bowers and Seashore, 1966).


34 comments to Leaders vs. Managers: The Real Answer to What’s Better

  • When I began reading your list, I said this comes right out of The Leadership Challenge workshop of which I’m a facilitator. Blue chip material.

    Yes, vision is key. Many leaders don’t take the time to either think about vision or communicate their vision with the team.

    When the leader has a challenge with vision, it’s usually because they haven’t found their voice. They need to come to grips with who they are first. Once that’s been achieved, they’ll be able to communicate their vision with confidence. Otherwise, they’ll come off looking inauthentic. The team can see right through someone trying to be someone that they’re not.

    • Hi Steve, I’m not surprised you recognized the list as it does indeed come from the research by Kouzes and Posner as well as by Bennis and Nanus. Your comments about communicating a vision and authenticity are spot-on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Stavros Baroutas

    It is generally accepted, that people today live in a constantly changing environment. Due to economical crisis the rate of growth reduced continuously, especially in EU which experiences the worst economic and social situation during the last four decades. Moreover, the flexibility in the labour market and demographical changes made very difficult the capability to working for someone. The ever increasing demands for profits have highlighted the role of managers in any organization. Private or public. There is no doubt that any manager has to have some basic characteristics, which reinforce their profiles and give the opportunity to the employees to develop their skills. Parallel to that, each manager has to inspire the employees, in the level of the efficiency. In the following lines I will try as much as I can to describe some basic elements, of successful management.

    In the last decades, when the demands from the market were not as intensive as they are today, the role of manager, was not so important. However, as long as the company profits were concerned, he had a very significant role. But today things have been changed. A manager is concerned to be a leader. A kind of a hero. It’s not like spider man or superman, but a person who can inspires, attacks and comes out intact from the transactions and reforms. He must be able to find solutions, but mainly has to be insightful and to have increased perception of the present and future conditions. It’s important for a leader to be exigent for his colleagues. Many people support the idea that the most significant thing for a manager, is to find the best collaborators so as to fulfill the requirements of the company. I strongly agree with this opinion.

    Today’s leaders are expected to make their way ‘through the fire and flames’. Current crisis causes considerable variations in and out of the framework of organizations. Skills to be developed for immediate use would be best described as survival mechanisms, particularly in cases where leaders had acquired such capabilities in the past and are now called to put them in practice, in order to be distinguished in their field of activity.

    On the other hand, tomorrow’s leaders will need to demonstrate that they have struggled all the way to their position. Current circumstances are tougher and more complex than past conditions, primarily due to the financial crisis that has permeated the market and households. Hence, the one who struggles in such a chaotic reality might as well be considered a hero. Likewise, the one who has been shaken without falling down is a hero. The word ‘hero’ may sound weird at this context, but one should consider that, from a state of past abundance, significant parts of the population—employees, families, citizens—have now been reduced to deprivation. The rate of unemployment keeps rising on a daily basis, rendering the situation even more unfortunate. Therefore, such circumstances suffice to justify an increasingly aggressive and demanding environment.

    According to all that, a leader has to be continuously updated to any process and develop immediate and direct reflex. Moreover, their actions are characterized by high ethics and integrity all the way. They manage to live through every day events, attaining desired change and avoiding being manipulated. Further qualities of their personality are psychological strength, self-control, diligence, patriotism and adequate knowledge. According to these, my opinions is that these attributes or leadership behaviors is needed in this particular moment and these are the elements a team need from me/you right now to journey successfully from vision to reality.

    • Stavros, I appreciated your thorough analysis of the issues leaders are facing today and what is required as a result. The natural effect of the economic crisis is to cause a “fear state” where people close down, operating from a more tactical, day-to-day survival orientation when ironically what is needed is the opposite, to take a strategic, far-sighted view. Making this shift is indeed heroic. If we wait for things to settle back to normal, we’ll be waiting a long time. The leaders who will be successful are those who can thrive in an ever-changing environment. Thank you, Stavros, for taking the time to share your insights.

  • Thank you for your excellent research and wise insights on this critical topic. The key point as I see it is that “leadership and management are needed at every level.” I would challenge that the problem is not that leadership is over-valued, but that it is under-valued in those who are not in management positions. The question of “What does your team need from you right now to journey successfully from vision to reality?” needs to be asked of everyone on the team. Each and every member of the team should ask themself, In what ways can I help lead this team toward the vision? How can I bring inspiration to the vision, foster collaboration, set an example? A question for managers is, What are you doing to let the leaders lead? http://cybuhr.com/2011/12/05/let-the-leaders-lead/

    • Hi Daniel, You make an excellent point about leadership being under-valued – in terms of people not stepping up to the plate to provide leadership. I appreciated your post. I too have wondered about the passivity and lack of leadership in organizations – people waiting for those at the top to lead. You might enjoy my post When Leaders Don’t Lead.

      • I had missed that post so thank you for the reference. Your distinction between leadership and management honors those of us who are not in a management position but yet are leaders.

  • You touch on a topic that has always intrigued me. I tend to find the discussion as academic because in reality you need to have both attributes. I was blown away by your findings of High Vision/ Low Management as I would have expected the team to drop the ball. The outcome does make sense as the best team is the one where individual strengths cover the individual weaknesses, resulting in the whole being better than the sum of the parts.

    I agree that we should stop belittling one over the other as we should more take notice of what is needed. Thanks for my weekly dose of grounding as usual Jesse.

    • Hi Thabo, Thanks for the feedback that my post was grounding. It’s a little more theoretical then those I usually write, and I was a little concerned about that. But this topic keeps coming up and I wanted to make a statement that would refocus the conversation.

  • Love it, Jesse. I don’t think its time to retire the conversation about potential differences in leadership and management. Those conversations force us to think and challenge our assumptions, which is always a good thing. The folks that beat up Bennis for his statement need to go back and re-read the original source material. His remarks have been twisted out of context by those that have probably never read his book. As you correctly point out, behaviors are the key.

    • Hi Bret, Always nice to see you here! The problem I have with the conversation is that our language sets us up to confuse behaviors with roles. If every manager thought of themself as a leader, it would be a different conversation.

      ps. Agree with you about the context of Bennis’ statement. The link in the quote is to the source material, so it is possible to see the statement in context.

  • Jesse, working as a field leader I often get mixed messages as to what is expected from those above. I found that by interpreting directions to suit my own style of communication, I am more effective to my team.

    Yes there is a difference between managing and leading, but the required “buy in” from staff remains the same regardless (at least for me).

    Thanks for bringing this topic to the forefront. Miriam

    • Hi Miriam,
      The challenge in sorting mixed messages is whether they’re around communication style or whether it’s an issue of clarity on vision and strategy. When the bigger picture is not clearly held by all, teams often end up working at cross-purposes with each other.
      I agree with you on the importance of “buy-in.”
      It’s always great to hear from those in the trenches. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Stavros Baroutas

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Jesse!

  • This is one of the most vague and muddy distinctions of ‘Leadership’ and ‘Management’ I have come across. How exactly do the following differ?

    1. ‘actions along the way’ (Leadership) vs. ‘implementation’ (Management)
    2. ‘where you are going’ (Leadership) vs. ‘goal setting’ (Management)
    3. ‘celebrate accomplishments’ (Leadership) vs. ‘praising’ (Management)
    4. ‘recognizing…small wins’ (Leadership) vs. ‘measuring progress’ (Management)

    Also, I while concur with your conclusion that both Leadership and Management are necessary, I can’t see how you actually see that you research data supports that. Your quadrant clearly implies that Leadership trumps everything because even with weak ‘Management skills’ a team can be ‘High Performing’ as long as there is strong strong Leadership.

    Bret – I agree 100% with your comment that ‘potential differences…force us to think and challenge our assumptions, which is always a good thing’, but in fairness to Miriam, I don’t think she is advocating to not talk about the ‘differences’ (which she in fact is doing herself), but instead she is advocating to not talk about ‘which is better’. They can be different without one being better that the other.

    • This is the point of my post, Bruce. These sets of behaviors are not as distinct as some people would like to believe. The study of management began with the industrial age where the focus was on how to get people to be more efficient. During the 1960’s, humanistic researchers added a second dimension where the orientation included not only focus on the task but also on the relationship between people. In the 1980’s a third dimension was added – a focus on the transformative possibilities. Each new dimension has been additive to the previous dimension, not negating it.

      More info on the conclusions of my research that are discussed in the last slide. Analysis of high performing teams indicated that they had good management processes in place. So, the question arose, where was this coming from if not from the leader? Deeper analysis of the data revealed the dimension of “Enabling Others to Act” had a strong correlation between leaders who were rated high on visionary leadership and low on management and high performance teams. Leaders who were not rated highly on this dimension did not lead high performance teams. “Enabling others to act” means providing resources and getting out of their way (which is different than delegating, because support is provided, but only when needed). These leader behaviors support the team in setting up its own management processes. In other words, although some highly rated leaders did not directly provide strong management themselves, they ensured that the processes for management were in place. If they didn’t, their team was not a high performance team.

  • Thanks for this post, Jesse. I agree that the boundary between managing and leading is frequently fuzzy and permeable. I would also add that further significant distinctions about leading and managing can be found in the work of Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard. Distinguishing between technical and adaptive challenges, Ron and company speak to the types of responses that are needed based on the presenting problem, and regardless of one’s title. This dichotomy is further expanded in the work of Dave Snowden. Dave’s Cynefin framework divides the teechnical problems into simple and complicated domains. Adaptive challenges may be either complex or chaotic. Snowden’s ontologies – sequences for probing, making sense, and responding to problems in organizations, offer useful guidance for “leaders” and “managers” alike.

    Have a great day!

    • Great stuff, Bruce! Both of these models address the question I was raising about determining what type of action or decision is required given the situation. Ron Heifetz’s work would be especially helpful to help a leader who needed but was resistant to a collaborative change processes to understand why it was necessary. I really love the Cynefin framework! For anyone reading this conversation, here is a link to a quick youtube video where Dave Snowden introduces it: The Cynefin Framework. Thanks for sharing your knowledge here, Bruce. Best wishes to you!

  • D. Scott Smith


    Wonderful post…so much disussion has occured around whether management or leadership is better, when in reality we do indeed need both. My perspective comes from application – managing & leading organizations, and the need for practical (vs. academic) solutions.

    The practical side of management is fairly straight forward and generally accepted as defined:

    -Lead (supervisory)

    Defining leadership in such a practical manner is more elusive. Again based on my experience (no academic research) I find we can be effective leaders (at any level) by being intentional to implement the following four leadership traits:

    -Communicate Vision
    -Build Trust (between followers)
    -Inspire Greatness (as a coach would)
    -Move to Action

    Thank you for this post. I have passion for leadership and two others areas where you have excellent posts: Purpose and Change.

    Keep the inspiration coming!


    • I like your lists, Scott. The only thing I might add to your 2nd list would be something around “enabling others to act.”

      One other thought – I would give these lists different titles than “management” and “leadership” (because as I discussed in my post, they are too easily confused with the titles of “manager” and “leader.” An idea for titles that comes to mind are: Homeostatic and Morphogenic (from the field of family systems theory) – Homeostatic behaviors produce stability and support the status quo. Morphogenic behaviors cause change and movement. Or one could simply say “stability-oriented” and “change-oriented” behaviors.

      Thanks for furthering the conversation, Scott.

  • Thanks, as always, Jesse for a thought-provoking post that engenders great conversation. I take from your piece an important message that within each of us — no matter our title, level or role — is the capacity to be a leader and a manager. Our individual owning up to and expanding those capabilities, and responding to the deep needs at hand, are what will make a dramatic difference in how we lead own our lives and how we shape the contribution we make to the enterprises we care about. Your research is compelling. Thanks for sharing!

    • One of the things I love about blogging is the opportunity for the conversation in the comments to extend the thinking in my post, which you have done quite beautifully. Your comments surface a true and rich layer, that I just have to repeat because you have touched on a theme that runs throughout my blog:

      For each of us, our individual owning up to and expanding the full range of our leadership capabilities, and responding to the deep needs at hand, are what will make a dramatic difference in our own lives and in our organizations.

      Thank you for extending the conversation, Kathy!

  • Jesse, I’m with you, it is not one over the other – it’s both! In business, if you are managing people in any way, shape or form, you are clearly expected to be a leader of your team/tribe, but leadership is rarely, if ever, included in a job “title” and by implication (from the jump) leadership responsibilities are promoted as secondary. Most are playing catch-up to the “ideal” – of managers who are good leaders – from the second they are hired.

    Well meaning HR and training/development departments are working against the obviously necessary mix of leadership and management skills by utilizing a job title that positions one clearly over the other, because they have always done it this way. Stop and think of the missed opportunities that might have passed by if – “We have always done it this way…” – had ruled the roost.

    If you are a manager, in business with others, you are in hot pursuit of business coordination, a graceful exhibition of leadership and management (despite their differences) balancing in motion. The demonstrable necessity of business coordination, or blending of leadership and management, is not acknowledged by staying on the manager side of the river.

    Leader is a “role” not a job, and you can be plucked from a pile, groomed, bubble-up naturally, force-fed into it or quite literally, be the last one standing. It is brought into play when one is influencing/ guiding / impacting others. You can be a leader without management responsibilities, which in the hospitality industry is called a “lead” as in – lead server, cook, bartender, busser or in some large organizations, a figure head. If you have no other person within your span of influence (let’s say you’re operating a street-cart) then you can manage things without being a leader.

    For generations there have been debates about the concise definition of leadership. The truth is — it DEPENDS. Leadership definitions are dependent on the team, situation, fate, timing, or definitions of success and most certainly upon the width or height of your travails. Additionally, it depends if you are speaking of leadership in the arena of business, military, science, religion or politics with striking differences evident between frontline and back office leaders. And, it depends on whether you’re seeking a descriptor of leaders who are edgy or plain-Jane, powerful or powerless, figureheads or headless figures.
    When it comes right down to it, leadership is influence. Yes, most organizations hold high the tangible metric “results” of the system/process/push and pull, but when it comes to people, the influencers at EVERY LEVEL are the true leaders.

    So, here is a great question for those with an interest in leadership – Are you relying strictly upon your job-granted positional authority to herd your fellows, or do you fly a flag that others wish to rally around?

    In the beginning, middle and end, leadership is simply the business of flag flying.

    I’m using “flag flying” as a metaphor for the “things” you provide when one is “in” the role of “being” a leader. It has been my experience that many underestimate the power of “how you are” – which in most cases is equally important to “what you do” — If you empower others and foster an environment of trust and can also get projects done on time, scope and within the budget –what you do, and how you are (both) – travels before and after you. It becomes your “standard” or “flag” – folks are more readily inclined to be attracted by personal/professional “flags” with clear representations of past success(competence & completion) and/or (character & conditions) as representatives of future success.

    I know that it is hard to change the world, nix that, a word, but it seems that it would be of great service to indicate from the start that a manager’s job success comes from both managing and leading, and both are equally important. Try using “leadagers” (leed/a/jers) to describe a leader who manages, and a manager who leads. This is in alignment with the true aim of any job description – CLARITY.

    • You raise a very good point about the relationship between hierarchy and the confusion around roles of managers and leaders and definitions of management and leadership. Further evidence of how the confusion plays out. I agree that the best bet is to change the language we use to define leadership behaviors. I think there are more than just two categories of behaviors. “Leadership” and “management” encompass behaviors that are either strategic or tactical. But where do “hard” and “soft” fit? or “rational” and “emotional”? or “internal focus” and “external focus”? You offer a clever alternative – combine everything into one category. I really appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts, Chase.

  • JLS, Thank you for the quick, thoughtful and kind reply!

  • fay kandarian

    Jesse – absolutely agree – it is time to retire the argument! Of course it is a polarity and both are needed as you so wonderfully write.

  • Hi Jesse Lyn

    Loved the article and the analysis, plus all the contributions that people have given as their comments. I also really loved your question below:

    What does your team need from you right now to journey successfully from vision to reality?

    This nails it for me as I very much agree it is about moving from vision to actuality … and it reminded me of the old adage “Where there is no vision, the people perish!”

    I also wondered whether there was one explicit leadership behaviour that was missing from your list – promoting learning – about oneself and others. I am a lifelong learner and will hopefully remain so. It helps me in many ways, not least of which is in developing my emotional intelligence. This was reinforced for me when Todd Nielsen wrote something recently – “If you stop learning, you stop leading!” I’d go with that one and be interested in what others feel or think about that statement?

    Kind regards


    • Hi John, I agree that learning is fundamental to leadership. Perhaps it should be highlighted separately as a trait, although I’m not sure which category to assign it to. In the leadership category, Kouzes and Posner describe a trait they call “enabling others to act.” You cannot enable people by simply giving them permission; you must support their developing the needed skills and attitude. Bennis and Nanus describe the attitude of the leader using a term they call “The Wallenda Factor” – where the leader is totally focused on moving forward with confidence, learning from mistakes. The management model is about development – providing the direction and support needed in order to help people (and teams) develop into high performers who can accomplish the objectives of the organization.

      Leaders at all levels must be able to take in information, learn from it, and self-correct – because although the destination can be clear, the path will not be. In order to reach the moon, the Apollo project made over a thousand mid-course corrections. Love the quote from Todd Nielsen – “If you stop learning, you stop leading.”

      Thank you for raising this important point, John.

  • Hi Jesse Lyn

    Thanks for the feedback and for the further thoughts on learning and leadership. I loved the quote too but then Todd, like you, is quality! Have a great weekend! John

  • Jesse,

    I agree that organizations need both. However, the greater change an organization is facing, the greater the need for leadership at various levels.

    Dr. Eric J. Romero, PhD

    • I agree, Eric. Leaders at all levels must feel ownership for driving the vision. And in today’s complex organizations in an expanding global economy, that’s pretty much all of the time because change is the new “normal.”

  • Owen Charnley

    Having spent half of my working life in UK’s armed services. then leadership is paramount. I was in the role of a leader and subordinate at the same time for many years. I had to lead and follow at the same time. From my perspective you lead people . If you are a good leader then people will follow you. To be a leader you must have followers. Leadership requires you to respect others, set examples have knowledge and have agreed legitimacy. Leadership is an emerging quality and comes out of these principles. Management is different in that you are trying to manage people, resources and processes with just the principle of authority. I think that if you have truly good leaders then authority very rarely has to be used.
    There are over 150,000 books on leadership and all of them with very different ideas. I know from my own experiences what works for me.


    • I appreciate your thoughts, Owen. There’s an Afghan proverb that goes, “If you think you’re leading and no one is following, you’re only taking a walk.” In our book Full Steam Ahead, Ken Blanchard and I say, “Leadership is about going somewhere.” It implies movement and followership. I think the behaviors are different. My biggest concern with the distinction is using the terms “leader” and “manager” instead of using the terms “leadership” and “management.” I have seen many mangers provide excellent leadership and many so-called leaders who have no idea where they’re going.

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