Are Effective Managers Also Great Leaders?

Organizations large and small thrive under good management. Effective managers bring order to chaos and drive results. They coordinate the work of others and ensure that projects complete on time and within budget. But are effective managers also great leaders? Or, more fundamentally, is there a difference between management and leadership?

This question echoes in the halls of business schools. Much has been written about the difference between managing and leading. Sometimes, the two are held in stark contrast: manage activities; lead people.

Of course, managers must lead. Managing almost always involves other people who seek direction and motivation to accomplish tasks and achieve business goals. Yet many still point to distinctive differences between the two:

  • Managers maintain. Leaders innovate.
  • Managers depend on control. Leaders build trust.
  • Managers avoid risk. Leaders embrace risk.

There are elements of truth in all of these contrasts. At an extreme, some management activities can be positioned as a simple transaction–without people to motivate or inspire–but in today’s service-oriented economy that seems less likely. Speaking about the knowledge economy, management guru Peter Drucker noted that “one does not ‘manage’ people. The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

I believe the leader vs. manager distinction is really more about passion and focus. Leaders are passionate about their mission, and rather than primarily focusing on activities, they focus on the people needed to achieve the mission.

Jose Munoz, (EVP, Nissan Motor Co. & Chairman, Nissan North America, Inc.) described it well in a recent interview. Talking about strategy execution, he outlined a technique called Hoshin Kanri that enables Nissan to align its vast organization around a few key goals. Jose was quick to say that effective management of the Hoshin process is not equivalent to leadership.

Speaking about leadership, he pivoted quickly to his passion for people and his team. Jose noted that he rarely worked alone and could be found anywhere around the globe with his team and not sitting in team meetings but in the gemba, a Japanese term for the place of action. For Jose, work in the gemba could be interacting with customers and sales teams in a dealership. Or it could be working with factory workers and engineers to solve quality challenges on the shop floor. While careful not to upend the management hierarchy, Jose emphasized that leaders must spend time with employees on the front lines of the organization, in the gemba.

So, while there may be important differences between management and leadership, managers can be great leaders. But there is a distinction, and not all managers are leaders.

Eric Johnson
About the author: 

M. Eric Johnson is the Dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management and the Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy. In that role, Johnson oversees Vanderbilt’s six graduate business degree programs involving 700 students, faculty, and staff. He also anchors a video series on business and blogs on leadership. Previously he served as Associate Dean for the MBA program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, where he was also Faculty Director of the Center for Digital Strategies. He holds a B.S. in Economics, B.S. in Engineering, M.S. in Engineering from Penn State University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University.  Follow him on Twitter.