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The Management-Leadership Debate: Making Sense of the Inter-relationship

07 Oct 2013

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Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill

By Wale Fawehinmi

Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, once described “Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
The opacity of the difference between leadership and management brings Churchill’s famous remark to mind. The complexity and contentiousness of the Management – leadership debate begs for enlightenment and invites this article.


It is ambitious to contemplate a short article on a topic of such wide amplitude that has, for so long, generated a plurality of perspectives from leading management thinkers. Nonetheless, there is value in a short discussion that lifts the hood on an issue that most certainly merits a book-size treatment.


This piece focuses its lens on a recurring question in organisational theory and management science. What are the key distinctions between leadership and management? The boundary between the role of a manager and that of a leader has for so long remained fuzzy to a vast number of management practitioners and scholars.


Distinguished leadership theorist John Kotter in a 2001 Harvard Business review article remarked that the leadership-management debate was instigated by the publication of an article titled ‘Manager and Leaders: Are they different?’ by Prof. Abraham Zaleznik in 1977.


The contest of ideas in the debate is however not the fulcrum of this article; of more importance, is the need to clarify the logic on the interdependence between management and leadership in organisations
Fayol, in 1949, suggested that five key activities define the management function. These are planning, organising, commanding, coordination and controlling. What raises the temperature of the debate and layers’ complexity, is that Leadership, which Naylor in 2004 defined as “the process of influencing people towards achievement of organisational goals” is also embedded in the interpersonal category of Henry Mintzberg’s classical conceptual categorisation of Managerial roles.


In an earlier article I stripped Mintzberg’s ground breaking ideas into central elements. What highlights the ambiguity between leadership and management is that under Mintzberg interpersonal role category, a manager’s role includes that of being a figurehead, leader and liaison; which to a discerning reader appears to be a clear-cut leadership function.


My take on the subject is that ambiguity diminishes in importance if the position that leadership and management are not mutually exclusive is accepted. Actions of leaders and managers must be seen as complementary.


A clear-headed appreciation of Mintzberg’s framework suggests that it is in the interpersonal aspects of a manager’s activities that leadership is most required. There is a consensus view however that it is difficult to find individuals that are adept at both leading and managing effectively.


This perspective has strengthened the argument of some scholars who advance the view that a manager must be a leader but a leader may not necessarily be a manager. With significant intellectual horsepower; Kotter in a 2001 Harvard Business review article posited that ‘Management is about coping with complexity’ whilst the purpose of leadership is about coping with change’. Management activities earlier described as planning, organising, commanding, coordination, and controlling are indeed complex.


Managers and leaders also differ in their perception of chaos and order. Abraham Zaleznik in 1992 argued that leaders are hard-wired to ‘tolerate chaos and lack of structure’. Managers on the other hand, have an order seeking and controlling mind set
What good management aspires to do within its formal structure, is to bring order to organisational objectives. Leadership on the other hand is more ‘big picture’. If organisations must cope with the headwinds facing them from high velocity technological advances, forces of globalisation, cross-border competition, business climate pressures, and market place challenges; they will need a change re-orientation. Good leadership is a critical requirement of such a change agenda.


When organisations are confronted with gales of change they must employ fresh thinking to seek new opportunities.  If leadership is about influencing others in the pursuit of organisational goals, a leader must pull several levers when setting a new direction. 


A leader in such circumstances needs to develop a vision of the future, share the vision, set goals, as well as align, motivate and inspire his team with effective communication. The point must be made that any vision, needs a well-articulated strategy to deliver results. The remit of the leader is to bring both into congruity. If a leader’s actions are sure-footed, its effects on the behaviour of others are transformational.


It must be emphasised that the transformative attribute of leaders at the edge of chaos, may have unintended consequences for an organisation. Experience suggests that the actions of a leader, singularly fixated on the pursuit of set objectives, may be disruptive to the stability of the workplace.


This article ends on the note that it is not enough to intellectually anchor the difference between management and leadership. What cannot be overstated is that forward thinking organisations need to engage and empower individuals who are possessed of the synergistic competences of leading and managing regardless of the difficulties of finding individuals with same.

* Dr. Wale Fawehinmi is currently a PhD Researcher in Health Policy at De Montfort University in the UK

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