The Definition of Leadership

I’m always amazed when I read articles comparing management and leadership.  I’m not really sure why people leader, manager, leadership, management, power, influencecontinuously compare the two.  They are two completely different things.  It’s like comparing apples and pianos.

If you Google the definition of manager, it says a manager is a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company/organization.  And if you do the same with leader, it’s a person who has influence or power.  This tells us a couple of things.

Leaders exist at every level of an organization.  They might also be managers.  Or maybe not.

If you’re a manager, you have some leadership power by virtue of your position.

Comparing management and leadership can imply a zero-sum game.  That is, great managers aren’t great leaders and vice versa.  When the reality is, they perform two different roles in the organization.  And companies need both of them to be successful.

Companies need leaders beyond the ones holding a manager or director job title.

If we genuinely want to cultivate leadership within our organizations, we have to recognize that leadership exists in everyone.  It’s about understanding how an individual’s leadership manifests itself in actions and behaviors.  It’s about using our leadership ability in the right way and at the right times.

It’s not about comparing and contrasting leadership and management.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.  Is it time to bury the leadership versus management conversation?  Or is the connection – and possible disconnection – between the two justified?


  1. says

    I agree. The comparative debate is distracting. I borrow Peter Senge’s definition of leadership: it is a system’s capacity to shape its future. Leadership is a system capacity, not an individual trait or the possession of power and authority. Certainly people with power and authority have an important role to play in shaping the future of an organization. But they are not the sum total of leadership. It’s much more than that.

    And I think we suffer a similar problem with our definition of management, which has ultimately been about giving that term to the tops of columns in organizational charts. Gary Hamel’s article in December HBR gives an example of a company that takes a much different view.
    Jamie Notter recently posted..Integrating #Humanize into Your Business

  2. says

    Great points! My favorite is “It’s about understanding how an individual’s leadership manifests itself in actions and behaviors.” (I’m a “behavioral” centered professional after all :)
    And those “actions and behaviors” do have a huge impact on the people or processes one manages, or dare I say leads!

  3. says

    Well said. A leader does not need a title. A manager is a role that people play in certain positions. There are different ways to exhibit leadership ability. Not all great leadership looks the same. People have different approaches to expressing this abilities. Maybe we start comparing different styles of leadership vs. the usual manager vs. leader comparison. Great discussion!

  4. says

    “I think the Army would make a serious mistake if we made a distinction and said, ‘You are a manager, and you are a leader.’ So my philosophy is that we are all leaders! We also must be responsible managers or stewards of resources entrusted to us. We would make a serious mistake to think that we could be one and not the other.” — General John Wickham, former Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

    Managers deals with the conceptual issues of the organization, such as planning and organizing, while leaders drive the interpersonal aspects of the organization, such as moral and team spirit. It takes both skills to grow an organization.

    Thus my take on the subject is that yes we do need to discuss both (I’m a retired Army sergeant).

  5. says

    A great, thought-provoking post.. It reminded me of a paper I read recently by Marcus Buckingham, where (in my opinion 😉 ) he gives an excellent description of the difference between managers and leaders:
    “Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack. This is the exact opposite of what great leaders do. Great leaders discover what is universal and capitalize on it.”
    Of course this doesn’t mean that great managers can’t be great leaders and vice versa, which he also points out. Here’s a link if anyone is interested –
    LizR recently posted..Measuring employee happiness: why it’s important

  6. David says

    Someone once summerized the difference between a leader and manager (I can’t recall who):

    Leaders are doing the right things. Manager are doing the things right.

  7. says

    Thank you Sharlyn,

    I have been after “clearly different, but powerful together” – thinking for many years. If you are a manager you need to be both, leader and manager (Leadagers TM) and you will also be a better leader if you are a successful manager.

    Leader is a “role” 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. Manager is the “job” of having responsibility for bringing about specific outcomes or overseeing certain activities. You can be a leader without management responsibilities, which is called a figurehead. 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. 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.

    As you know, when it comes right down to it, leadership is influence. Yes, most organizations hold high the tangible metric “results” of the system/process/push & pull, but when it comes to people, the influencers at every level are the true leaders.

    Here is the question for leaders/managers – 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 end, leadership is simply the business of flag flying.

    With that – I intend to suggest “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 future success (character & conditions) –

  8. says

    I like David’s distinction between leaders and managers.

    I also agree that leadership exists in everyone. Great organizations realized this and less-than-great organizations make it a one-way street.

  9. Michelle Chisholm says

    The only value of using both manager and leadership in the same sentence is to see if those who hold those formal and informal roles in your company know the difference. You might be amazed to know who understand the difference and who doesn’t.

    The other key note is that most companies do not recognize the influence non-management, informal leaders have on their culture, performance and effectiveness. We often take for granted or totally miss the influence of others in the organization – and they may conscientiously or unconscientiously be working for or against the goals of the organization. Leadership does not always lie with those with titles.

  10. says

    Great Post Sharlyn!

    It reminds me of the quote, “Management is about skills, leadership is about skills coupled with character.” -Patrick and Joan Gebhardt

    Yes, managers need to be leaders, but they are not the only leaders in the organization.

    You were dead on when you said, “Companies need leaders beyond the ones holding a manager or director job title.”

    Leaders are scattered throughout every organization, on every level, you just have to find them and let them shine!

  11. says

    Dear Sharlyn,

    You’re absolutely right. To further your point, some leaders do not make good managers and some managers do not make good leaders.

    As you cited, good leaders inspire others. They have a vision and a charisma that makes people want to follow them for better or for worse. Some leadership may not be for the betterment of society. Adolf Hitler comes to mind. Due to his charismatic and dramatic speeches he made to advance his career, he was able to sway many of the German people to his way of thinking. At the onset of his leadership, he was very good to the German people. The leadership was there, the path was wrong. And we know what led to his demise.

    In the Kennedy-Nixon presidential candidate debates in 1962, the charisma of the charming John F. Kennedy was far more alluring than the mono-toned, car salesman appearance of Richard M. Nixon. (And yet, I wonder if good leaders are salesmen to some extent – they sell us their visions.) JFK had an outstanding appeal to the masses in his day and may still have the same appeal today. Nixon was a former lawyer and I believe he was excellent at managing. Later he would prove to run for 2 full terms, winning the latter by a landslide. Unfortunately for him, Watergate would forever mark him as a bad president and what people would remember him by most. (However, I liked him! – He got us out of Vietnam in 1973.)

    I also believe that good leadership can be a friend, a parent, a coworker, anybody with a dynamic ability to influence and persuade. Great leaders leave behind a living legacy even after death. Some of my favorites are Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, George S. Patton, Ghandi and Jesus Christ who still continue to lead us in their absence through their timeless orations and spiritual connections.

    I wrote a blog about Worthy Leadership a few months ago. Perhaps you or your readers would be interested:

    Also, I thoroughly enjoyed and agree with Chase LeBlanc’s response. It is very insightful. I think you’re a very good leader too, Sharon!

    Katherine Razzi recently posted..Graphic Rating Scale

  12. says

    Wow! What a great conversation. Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts on the subject. And the links to other resources.

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who believes leadership takes place at every level in the organization. It will be interesting to see how the leadership training conversation develops over time. If leaders exist everywhere, then why is leadership training often reserved for only management level employees? Hmmm…

  13. michael says

    The term “manager” or “management” originated from the Latin word Manus….which meant “hand” or to “handle”. From there it eventually ended up in the French vocabulary(which is largely based on Latin) to “menagement”( the E should have an accent on it).

    The term management or manager, in my opinion, is related to “organize” “process” “follow” “repeat” “experience(learn from the past)”. This is what a good manager does. They are process driven, follow rules and past good practices, repeat things well etc etc.

    One example in ancient history was the the Roman Empire. The reason they were so successful was based on well organized Legions(armies) that easily conquered the dis organized hoards of Europe, Nothern Africa and the Middle East. Thanks to good military managers that excecuted the vision of their great leaders.

    Leaders,on the other hand, have very different traits and abilities. But even great leaders need followers…..and this is were the difference lies.

  14. says

    I discovered a new word the other day while preparing documents for a meeting. It’s called “followship.” This new word says to me that leadership may only be as good as its followship. People who follow leaders and carry out their vision make leaders look great. There is something to be said about followers when we talk about leadership!

    Katherine Razzi recently posted..Obese job candidates: Are they discriminated against during interviews?

  15. says


    Hmmm.. “Servant leadership” sounds like it means the same as “followship.” Gee, which one is more innocuous? Servant leadership almost sounds like an oxymoron to me. Wait a sec… I made a mistake in the spelling. Followership is the word, not followship. It’s actually in Webster online: #2 “the capacity or willingness to follow a leader” First known usage – circa 1928.
    Katherine Razzi recently posted..Obese job candidates: Are they discriminated against during interviews?

  16. says

    The simple distinction is that you’re a manager when the company says so, you’re a leader when the team/people say so.

    Leadership is an outcome, not a role.

    If you are talking about the role of leader you’re talking about being “in charge”, the boss, the person out the front….. and that is really confusing. Unfortunately most research on leadership has been done on those people.

    I work with a lot of managers and none of them have inner voices who ask, “is it time to be a manager or is it time to be a leader?” You cannot separate them in reality. The closest concept I’ve come across is the yin-yang diagram.

  17. says

    Hi Mark. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you bring up a good point about most research being on leaders in high visibility roles. And there are plenty of effective leaders who aren’t in those positions.

  18. says

    Valuable post and I appreciate the position that “leadership exists in everyone.” Most companies senior manager group have trouble getting away from thinking that those in “positions of power” also have the corner on “leadership.” To accept leadership at all levels and to encourage it is to unleash the power within.

  19. says

    Before we can really discuss the differences and/or relationship between leadership and management with any hope of making progress, we first have to understand what “leadership” really is.

    The fact that we don’t have a universally or even widely accepted definition of “leadership” doesn’t bode well for the discussion. Your understanding of leadership is going to be based on your understanding of human nature, the nature of human relationships, and goals. Change your understanding of these things and your understanding (and practice) of leadership changes with them. Dramatically so. In short, your understanding of leadership is going to be based in your understanding of life. Change your understanding of life and you get a different understanding of leadership. For example, what is the difference between thinking that leadership involves “achieving goals” vs. “change”?

    I’ve always believed in keeping things simple and open. Leadership, at its simplest, is “one providing guidance to another”. Leadership is more than companionship. It also involves the leaders showing or telling the follower how to arrive at the goal. Leadership is pervasive in every aspect of our lives when we trust others–dozens of times a day–to provide us guidance in everything from auto repair to staying healthy to work.

    Others above talk about management being the process aspect of achieving goals–and I think they’re right. The best leaders are also good managers in that they understand that goal achievement and success rarely just happen as a result of inspiration (some people do get rich from the lottery), but that success results from having a really good process too. How many times have we all heard how important it is–if you want to be a good leader–that you have to correctly (manage) your own life even if its just so you can focus on the important things and not be distracted by the less important stuff?

  20. says

    @Mike – Yep. The sooner companies realize leadership exists at every level, the quicker they can leverage it for the benefit of the whole organization. Thanks for the comment.

    @Pete – I agree one of the challenges with the leadership/management discussion is the lack of universal definitions. That’s why for the post I decided to go with the dictionary approach. Now if we all can’t agree the dictionary definition is rooted in some truth…well, then I think we have another problem on our hands. Thanks for the comment.

  21. michael says

    Here’s an article about BAD leadership published by Forbes Magazine authored by someone who looks qualified to talk about this subject.

    If history is a judge few good leaders have been good managers. Most brilliant leaders were terrible at anything that had “process” as a component in the direction or decisions that were made. In fact, most accomplishments by great leaders……were at the time….thought of as lunacy……go back a few centuries and ask Alexander the Great…..or any of his equivalents.

  22. says

    Let’s try this… Leadership is Ice Cream

    The words” leader” and “leadership” have morphed from widely accepted definitions of person(s) at the top, to widely undeserving the contemporary currents as labels for those who contribute to the process of moving things forward in any business setting.

    I like to think of it this way, leadership is ice cream and business, military, political situations or circumstances and their on-the-job requirements, are flavors. It is impossible to use chocolate chip and make it work when pistachio swirl is required, unless you only care about the fact that you used ice cream and not about how it tastes. Now you know why poor leadership leaves such a bad taste for everyone. (Admit – this is the first time you ever heard about leadership ice cream)

    The mixing of flavors (or leadership styles/skills) is a creative endeavor. The enlightened/ contemporary approach demands different leadership tactics for ever-changing circumstances and roles. You can be a lead cook, server or busser (out in front-modeling the job in a stellar fashion) but that is different than a general manager, battlefield leader or neighborhood political leader.

    Leadership is a role (at any level) – Management is in most discussed situations – a job – with an accompanying job description. (Quick, go find a company drafted job description for leader…)

    I come from hospitality, a business arena where leadership is sought, recognized and cultivated at all levels. If someone is the best busser/cook/server/bartender they will become a “lead” and leaders at all levels are the lifeblood of any hospitality organization, as I’m sure they are for many industries. I am not a top–down leadership-school-of-thought adherent. Enlighten organizations currently seek bottom-up/sideways/criss-cross leadership involvement and engagement. Rotating and aligning the best people, ideas, practices and future “potentials” — “out in front” (e.g.: leadership) –

    Present day business environments are shockingly fluid and demanding of skills that previously were not essential requirements. At the top of this skills list is learning on-the-fly and adapting to ever-changing conditions.

    You must try to create the most impactful flavor of leadership (ice cream) that works best for your situation/team and you’re going to have some bad batches along the way. Many of you already have faced the fact that some folks on your team will come up with a “dirt” flavor of leadership when you asked them for cool-mint. However, you will be surprised at the number of positive outcomes if you embrace the quest for engaged leadership at all levels as if it were both a business necessity and a creative flavor endeavor.
    Chase LeBlanc recently posted..TEBOW & TURNAROUNDS

  23. says

    @Michael – Thanks for sharing the article!

    @Chase – Thanks for the comment. Using your ice cream analogy, this means everyone starts with “vanilla” as the foundation and can add ingredients to create the best flavor for the situation. The challenge becomes knowing what the best flavor is, how to make it, when to serve it and who to serve it to. (Hmmm…and now I have a craving for a milkshake. LOL!)

  24. says

    From an HR point of view, I see leadership as something that is in place in nearly all organisations and it is the process in which the workforce looks to the senior member of staff, respects them and works on behalf of them for the best interests of the business in question.