Are there fundamental differences between leaders and managers?

Are there fundamental differences between leaders and managers?


For the past two weeks, I have been teaching masters students in business administration programs, last week in Grenoble and currently in Munich. Leadership courses with MBA students–or executives, or any other type of student for that matter–often cause me to reflect on the evolution of business education in general. So, I plan to write more about some of my thoughts on that in the weeks to come. Today, though, I focus on the concept that “managers” and “leaders” have distinct personality types and skill sets.

As is often the case, in both Grenoble and Munich, students asked questions about the distinction between leaders and managers, a concept I had referred to only peripherally. On the background reading list for my courses, I almost always include Abraham Zaleznik’s classic article “Manager and Leaders: Are They Different”, which first appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1977. Often, students have already come across the concept in other courses, particularly those related to organizational behavior or theories of management.

In addition, and again by coincidence (As I wrote last week, articles seem to magically appear when I am reflecting on a particular subject!), the Financial Times ran a piece last week by Morgen Witzel, a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School. Witzel contends that we would all do well to stop focusing on the differences between the two profiles, that we should consider leaders and managers as one and the same. You can read this article here

The theoretical backdrop: In 1977, Professor Zaleznik’s article was indeed groundbreaking and controversial. A renowned authority on leadership and social psychology, Zaleznik was a member of the Harvard Business School faculty for more than four decades. His theories went against those in vogue at the time, which tended to consider managers as technically competent individuals whose role was to streamline procedures and improve the efficiency of systems. 

Of course, we must keep in mind that the original article was published in 1977, during an era when views of management focused largely on organizational structure and processes. Management development was mostly about building competence, exercising control, and driving organizational efficiency. In a radical departure for that time, Zaleznik argued that this prevailing concept of what managers do failed to consider the essential elements of leadership–vision, inspiration, and the ability to incite passion in others–that characterize outstanding organizations.

According to Zaleznik, fundamental differences between leaders and managers had their origin deep in their respective psyches. In essence, the leader and the manager were two distinct personality types. Managers are problem solvers who embrace process, seek stability and control, and endeavor to increase the efficiency of output. They tend to detest chaos. Leaders, on the other hand, tolerate or even embrace chaos, since they are more concerned with a problem’s deeper significance. They are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more completely.

In the 1980s, influential leadership thinkers such as Warren Bennis and John Kotter embraced and advanced the concepts of Zaleznik’s landmark article. As the academic and business communities attempted to reach a deeper understanding of what leadership is, the manager-leaders dichotomy grew in acceptance. Management and leadership were defined as separate sets of tasks. Leaders set the direction while providing vision and inspiration, while managers insured that the work got done on a daily basis.

Scholars seemed to concur that organizations need both leaders and managers in order to flourish. The common wisdom stated the corporations should seek a combination of complementary individuals, since the management and leadership mindsets rarely co-existed in the same person. As such, companies needed to hire some of each type, and then endeavor to find the right balance between the two.

Next week, I will discuss in more depth some of the differences between leaders and managers, as defined in the classic literature. I find that there are some enlightening metaphors and images in these articles that make for interesting debate, particularly in the classroom setting. But, before delving into this arena, I ask the following: Are these distinctions meaningful only from the academic and philosophical standpoints, or do they lend any practical insight for the modern organization? Should we think of managers and leaders as two separate personality types, or should they be seen as one and the same?

As always, please feel free to let me know what you think.


  1. Barbara Le Blanc 11 years ago

    Hello John,
    You may not remember me. I am a very close friends with your sister Laura. She just sent me the link to your June 7 comments about leadership and managers. I am absolutely intrigued. What excellent work! I use the concept of storytelling in my work as an educator. I teach at the very small French language Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. One course that I teach is called “Drama and Theatre for Learning”, which of course is rooted in storytelling. And, another course that I teach is “Museums, Schools and Identity” which is based on people in cultures around the world constructing their sense of identity by telling their stories via museums (which include such a variety of places). I look forward to following the work that you doing to improve connections on our planet. BRAVO from Barbara Le Blanc

  2. Fritz 11 years ago

    Hey John, just again, thank you very much for the 3 days spending with us in munich…. it was such a pleasure.

    ENJOY ur time 😀

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