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There’s no doubt leadership continues to be a hot topic in the business and education sectors. Every business magazine, blog, newspaper, and hundreds of TED talks offer new (and not so new) perspectives and advice on building better leaders. And rightly so – having a strong leadership team is critical to business success. But did you ever stop to think what would happen if these leaders weren’t supported by excellent managers? Read on to discover more about our insight article: There’s no leadership without management.

More and more I’m noticing organisations referring to their managers as leaders. Even in situations where I’m talking to them specifically about managers, I will be firmly corrected: “No, they are called leaders here,” as if it elevates the status of the company and its staff somehow. For many, there still exists a notion that ‘managers’ belong in old-fashioned manufacturing or physical labour environments. However, by using this language I believe they are playing down the importance of managers in supporting staff and keeping a business running in the right direction.

Recent high-profile management failures caused by a lack of openness, accountability, performance management and supervision have had catastrophic consequences for those organisations and their staff, including complete company collapse, fines and major legal action. Furthermore, you only need to spend a few minutes on the website Glassdoor to see the damage that poor management can do to morale, productivity and ultimately staff attrition. These are issues that can’t be addressed just by leadership, they must be addressed by management with strong, fundamental skills like how to have conversations about performance, how to give feedback, how to delegate and how to motivate others.

I feel that it’s time organisations take heed of other’s failings, put the mirror up to themselves and admit that their best path to success and sustainability is to invest in training and retaining strong managers. Let’s give managers their share of the spotlight and respect their title as one of deep importance to the leadership function. The first step in doing this is to promote an understanding of the difference between management and leadership.

The difference between management and leadership

The words ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ are often used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences. Stogdill concluded that “there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.” A simple way to understand the difference between the two disciplines is to consider leadership as an ‘A to B’ function, whereas management is the A to A+ function. Leadership is the strategic element – setting what ‘B’ is and how the organisation should get there – and management is the operational element that drives productivity and efficiency.

Some would define management as an art, while others would define it as a science. I personally like to think of management as a ‘craft’ that can be developed. Whether it’s an art, science or craft isn’t what is most important: what matters is that management is a crucial process that is used to achieve organisational goals. It is generally accepted that managers achieve these goals through the key functions of planning and budgeting, organising and staffing, problem-solving and controlling. Leaders, on the other hand, set the direction, align people, motivate and inspire (Kotter, 2001).

That said, there are natural overlaps between the roles – managers can lead, and leaders must manage. In other words, good managers need to motivate and inspire their people, and leaders need high-quality management skills to be able to support and manage their managers. A well-balanced organisation should have a mix of leaders and managers to succeed, and in fact what they truly need is a few great leaders and many first-class managers (Kotterman, 2006).

For a role that is often incorrectly considered secondary to leadership, management requires proficiency in a variety of very complex skills, including:

Good communication skills, broken down into:

  • Three-level listening: internal listening to what it means to you, listening to the words and phrases being said, and listening to non-verbal cues (an indication of intentions and feelings
  • Being able to ask powerful questions to achieve clarity
  • Knowing the difference between accountability and responsibility. Responsibility (for objects, tasks or people) can be delegated but accountability can’t!
  • Providing high-quality feedback that can be used immediately
  • Managing performance effectively and in a timely way
  • Setting clear expectations regularly
  • Delegating effectively by utilising the strengths and talents of their team
  • Motivating others to achieve professional and organisational goals
  • Feeling confident in having difficult conversations
  • Coaching others to achieve their potential and overcome challenges
  • All leaders can identify behaviours they would like to see in their employees, but it’s only possible to reinforce, recognise and reward these behaviours if you have exceptionally well-trained managers, capable of all of the above skills.

How can we put managers in the spotlight?

Firstly, culturally managers and leaders need to be seen as having equal worth in the organisation. It’s crucial to recognise great managers and give credit publicly to those who are having a positive impact on the organisation, both formally via rewards, and informally at team meetings.

Secondly, focus and value need to be placed on training and support. When planning learning and development budgets, ask yourself: are you paying attention to management skills as well as leadership skills? Be sure to build management training into PDPs for those who have management aspirations so they can effectively support colleagues as soon as they are promoted.

It’s also worth considering how you evaluate your managers’ performance to encourage and promote the behaviours you are seeking. Many Human Resources Directors are introducing non-numerical performance reviews which evaluate the quality of the conversations managers are having. That’s only possible, however, if managers have the skill and the will to learn and carry out these conversations.

Finally, leaders themselves need to remember to be managers too and to role-model the behaviours they are asking others to display. They need to prioritise having meaningful conversations with their managers to see how they are doing; be interested in them; acknowledge, appreciate and support them. Establishing management training programmes isn’t enough if there isn’t support available in the implementation phase or if the leaders themselves haven’t had the training to begin with.

It’s a challenging thought, but without management, you can’t have leadership. Managers play a vital role in motivating front-line employees and enacting their leader’s vision for the organisation. Managers also have the closest relationship with employees and one that has the greatest impact on engagement. No engagement = no work. This proximity also places managers in the perfect position to spot high potentials who can help leaders deliver their vision well into the future. They are the conduit between ideas and action – and crucially ensure those actions are carried out in the right way. A noble role that should be regularly celebrated in organisations everywhere.


Kotter, J. P. (2001). What Leaders Really Do. Harvard Business Review, 79, 85-98.

Kotterman, J (2006) Leadership Versus Management: What’s the Difference? The Journal for Quality and Participation; Vol. 29, Iss. 2, 13-17.