Many people tend to use the terms “leader” and “manager” interchangeably. However, the two have very different functions although both are needed workplace roles. In his seminal Harvard Business Review article, What Leaders Really Do, Dr. John Kotter, Professor Emeritus of Leadership at the Harvard Business School, makes a distinction between leadership and management in three ways:

1) Management brings order to complexity; for example, by producing plans and budgets for providing goods and services. Leadership produces change; i.e., determining a new direction and the strategies to realize that vision.

2) Management addresses organizational alignment – the right personnel are in the right jobs (a staffing issue). Leadership addresses vision alignment – employees believe in and support the alternative future (a communication issue).

3) Management monitors results against the plan, taking corrective actions when needed; leadership motivates and inspires employees to keep pursuing the vision. I think of these two concepts as the ongoing need to engage both process and people.

In his related but more recent HBR article, Management Is (Still) Not Leadership, Kotter says that in addition to using “leadership” and “management” interchangeably, other mistakes commonly made are thinking of “leadership” in terms of personality characteristics, like charisma, and referring to “leadership” as only the people at the top of the organization. He says that instead, “Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior. And in an ever-faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy.” The result of these misunderstandings, Kotter tells us, is that, “there are very, very few organizations today that have sufficient leadership.”

So the bad news is that most organizations do not appreciate the difference between management and leadership, and, as a result, are not developing enough leaders. But the good news is that leadership is more accessible than most people realize, since leadership skills are not innate but can be developed, and are needed at all organizational levels. What can you start doing today to start developing the requisite leadership abilities your organization must have, in yourself and in your employees?

To lead people through change, get them to support the new direction, and inspire them to continue to move in that direction, you must connect with people and you must be credible. That in turn sounds like a tall (and somewhat fuzzy) order; but here are some specific ways to get there:

  • Know yourself. Figure out your values, beliefs, and perspectives, outside of external influences or expectations – what is most important to you? As a leader, these things will shape your vision. To do this, you must set aside time for reflection and self-exploration. Most leaders assume they don’t have time for such work and consider it a lowest priority – but in fact, it is central to their leadership.
  • Be transparent. Communicate your values and vision clearly, and let others see what you are passionate about. When others see what makes you tick, and your commitment and enthusiasm, you connect with and engage the people you are leading.
  • Be consistent. Act in accordance with your stated values and in support of your vision to establish trust with your people. People must believe in you to follow you in a new direction.

When we do not distinguish between managers and leaders, we risk creating, as Kotter says, “over-managed and under-led organizations.” By understanding the difference between the two, especially the skill set required for leadership, you can ensure that you are developing the leaders a successful organization needs.

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