March 5th, 2012

Guest Post: Leadership and Managment

Rei Tang, an sociologically-inclined alumni of the Project on National Security Reform, tells us that leadership and management are greatly misunderstood. Having heard an early version of this op-ed one night in the lobby of the Willard Interconintental, I pressed Rei to put this into op-ed form. He did so, possibly while listening to Rick Ross’s entire canon. As always, guest posters express their own opinions.

It’s fun to tell people to do things. Those who boss others around are healthier and live longer than those who are bossed around.  So, it’s important for you to have boss skills.

 In looking for ways to improve boss skills, you might read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “What is the difference between leadership and management?”  It might say, “The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.” WELL! Who wants to be a copy? Who wants to be a manager? Who wants to be Mitt Romney? No. I want to be the leader kind of boss. Or, if you’re a contrarian (so, so many of you are contrarians), you will think your current boss or boss’s boss is trying way too hard to be a leader and is letting everything slip by being a terrible manager. You will also hear this talked about by your bosses and at professional development events.

 Well, leadership and management are not like that.

 Leadership and management are so similar that for practical purposes of being a boss, separating them is rather pointless. Look at the field of thought: if you search for leadership and management in Google Scholar, you will get articles about leadership in management journals and vice-versa in ways that makes the dichotomy look pretty meaningless.

 But I will explain the difference, so it’s clear when you come across it.


Imagine you are flying over a remote forest and the plane crashes. The pilots and flight attendants die. Now you and the passengers have to survive and make it back to civilization. The survivors will be more effective as a group, so you all stay together. Since human groups naturally form into hierarchies, a leader emerges – an Army Ranger, a hunter, or a doctor possibly (Jack Shephard?!).

 What is happening here is purely leadership, not management. Leadership is the ability to get people to do what you say – they confer decision authority to you. This is done in many ways, but, in the end, it’s about being respected as a person who will tell others the right things to do. Leadership is having qualities that show confidence and competence, that win people to your side, or that cause people to fear your wrath. Leadership in its purest form happens in situations like the plane crash scenario, where the qualities that allow a person to command respect emerge to dominate a group. Once one becomes a leader, if one causes a loss of confidence in oneself, or is challenged by someone more respected, one can lose one’s spot.

 Think of people in charge today. If everyone was stripped of rank, who would rise to the top in the new world? Those are the leaders.


Now the leader of the crash survivors is firmly in charge and is ready to tell people what to do. This leader may appoint survivors to oversee food, water, shelter, hygiene, scouting, and campfire storytelling. These overseers are managers.

 Management is being concerned about what you want people to do for you. Your power is bestowed upon you not necessarily by qualities that command deference, but by an external power – in the case of the plane crash survivors it is being bestowed by the new survivor chieftain. Managers are given formal authorities over others by institutions for specific tasks. Managers can be leaders too. They may have earned their rank by being good leaders. If not, they may display competence that generates respect for them over time, thereby becoming leaders. Leadership qualities are good for managers, but the foremost concern in the practice of management is a set of duties within a larger organizational context.

Like a Boss

"Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry." – James March

 In dealing with organizations in everyday life, leadership and management are practically the same things. Being good at one makes you good at the other. Your boss may demonstrate an excellent grasp of his duties and your firm, and tells you to do things that make a lot sense, making you a loyal follower of his. Your ballin’ out of control pick-up basketball team leader may be an excellent manager at her job.

 So, get rid of the notions that leadership is big things and management is small things, that leadership is change and management is stasis, and that leadership is all fluffy people stuff and management is hard numbers. A leader needn’t lead from the front and the manager needn’t sit at a desk. Leaders must ensure they are in touch with details and provide a sense of steadiness. Managers must have their informal networks and change their organizations to meet future challenges.

 Instead of worrying about whether you’re a leader or a manager, find a style of being in charge that gets people to do the right things.

 When people talk about “charismatic leadership” or “strategic management,” it has more to do styles and personalities of being in charge than a difference between management and leadership.

 But style and personality is important, and most of all, must match the person and situation at hand. In a scenario like the plane crash, you want a hardy badass in charge. In a policy planning department, you might want a cerebral strategist. A big part of being in charge is finding a style that works. It’s simple, but difficult. You usually don’t have all the answers, but all that really matters is if you can get everyone out of the forest.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng