Management vs. leadership, and how to tell them apart

Management and leadership skills are often associated, but are usually distinct and rarely found in the same individual. Here's where you need them and how to tell them apart.


Management and leadership are distinct talents that are often lumped together. We expect our managers to lead their staffs, and our leaders to manage their organization. We'll hire a project "manager" who is expected to lead an expensive effort, and often punish leaders who can barely manage a routine status call. Both traits are important; however, some IT organizations need a near balance of the two, while others can be successful with a strong bias toward one or the other trait.

The importance of management

Management tends to get a bad rap, at least in the US business culture. Managers make sure people are in the right places, doing the right things, while leaders innovate, pontificate, and inspire. With job descriptions like that, why would anyone ever want to be a manager? However, the world is littered with companies that had visionary and inspirational leadership but failed to get much of import accomplished. The new trend is to cite this as a failure of execution, but in most cases that execution did not occur due to a lack of competent management.

In IT in particular, we tend to give management the short shrift, and promote people internally to management roles due to their technical acumen rather than a demonstrated ability to manage. This is not only a recipe for failure, but unfair to the staffer to expect them to suddenly gain management acumen by virtue of a promotion. Would you take your best accountant and promote them to Lead AJAX Developer and expect them to produce high-quality code on day one without any development experience or training? Despite this laughable suggestion, IT organizations promote technicians to management roles on a regular basis.

Do you need both management and leadership?

While most business authors suggest you need some combination of management and leadership in order to be successful, for IT organizations this need not always be the case. Consider a utility-type IT organization that's tasked with maintaining complex infrastructure and deploying applications at the request of a business unit. In this case, excellent management will rule the day, with a cadre of managers scheduling upgrades and maintenance, maintaining disaster recovery plans, and diligently managing application rollouts that are led by someone else.

As an alternate extreme, consider a product-based IT shop, where most of the actual work is outsourced to trusted vendors. This organization requires leadership that might combine technologies in new ways, forge unusual vendor partnerships, and keep all the parties aligned around a common vision, but leave the execution to hired hands.

Where the two areas meet, and can spell disaster when poorly implemented, is complex IT projects. We've all read about, or perhaps experienced, a multi-million dollar failed IT project, and when you investigate the causes it often comes down to a failure of management and leadership. In the case of these projects, too often we rely overly on certification agencies, deeming someone a "manager" of a multi-million dollar project due to a raft of initials after their name, while also expecting them to be a forceful leader who can resolve project disputes or go to sponsors to redirect the project before it blows up. Similarly, we might staff the project with a proven leader who finds the nuances of coordinating dozens of internal and external parties completely unimportant, while the project burns through its funds with little actual result.

Equip thyself

To minimize a failure of management or leadership in your organization or on a critical project, carefully assess how much you need of both, and don't rule out the possibility that you need to heavily weight yourself toward one discipline or the other. Don't assume that someone who has a proven track record in management or leadership automatically possesses the other skill. The world's best project manager will likely be a great asset to your project, but must be combined with a leader who sets the direction for the project manager, and vice versa. Pay particular attention to avoiding this assumption when hiring leaders. By their very nature, a good leader will inspire confidence in their abilities. That confidence is a good thing, but it doesn't mean they don't need to be paired with a competent manager in order to be successful.

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