what is leadership, anyway

Leadership is a fickle word. Sometimes it’s a noun, and other times an adjective. Often it’s categorized as good or bad, and sometimes it’s used to qualify someone’s skills, traits, or personality. Plenty of people have sought to define it, only to discover that the idea is so contextual that a truly universal definition of leadership may never exist.

 Making it even harder to pin the tail on the donkey is that often, the term leadership is conflated with management, and so are the ideas behind each. It’s easy to understand why: both of these ideas generally co-exist in the same role - you’re likely to find those titles used interchangeably in work settings.

 Achieving an imagined future

John Kotter’s Harvard Business Review piece What Leaders Really Do suggests leadership itself is the process of dealing with (or instigating) change that affects a company or organization. We would agree!

 The scale of this change is generally large: crafting a vision and direction for the organization, communicating that vision clearly, and motivating everyone as they go along. When changes are imposed from the outside (market shifts, new regulations), the leader must adjust: pieces must be re-visioned, re-set, re-directed, re-communicated (the work of motivation never ceases).

 Leadership is outwardly-oriented, future-focused, and decidedly about people—determining how those involved will be affected, and how they can be encouraged to join the new vision is a leader’s great responsibility.

 Imagine leadership as convincing your family to take a road trip to a place you really want to go— instead of their usual destination.  It involves creating a desire for change, conjuring a vision of the new destination, and motivating everyone to get on board and do the work to get there.

 Facilitating that achievement

While leadership illustrates a vision for the future and inspires everyone to get there, management deals with complexity by creating systems that control how the work gets done:

•       Planning: laying out the steps needed to arrive there,

•       Organizing: arranging the team, resources, and time required to undertake plans.

 Management solves any problems that arise along the way. Management’s purview is the steps in a system that will produce the outcomes required by the company in order to achieve the vision that is set forth by the leader.

 So while leadership is about setting the destination for the road trip, management is about making sure the routes are clear, the car has gas, and everyone has enough snacks to keep up their enthusiasm for the journey!

 Blurring the line between

Just to complicate things even further, leadership and management are not siloed systems of action – their distinction is about context. Leaders can be found everywhere, and not always in their job titles. There may well be a need for a manager to create a vision and inspire their team to work towards it, or for a leader to plan the budget and workflow of project.  Often there is a need for each of these areas of expertise in order to run an organization. 

 Understanding the distinction between leadership’s visionary change, and management’s systematic processes is key to cultivating an ability to toggle back and forth between the two: knowing which situation calls for what kind of action. Think of it as the distinction between working with the board, and working with your staff.  The best leaders can both lead and manage in the appropriate context, and sometimes do both at once!

By Leslie Appleget, Research & Data Analyst