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Leadership vs Management: Are You Numb from the Debate? (Part 1)

Jim Taggart

If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.

   - Yogi Berra

I’ve been a student of leadership for some 20 years and am fascinated by viewing it through different lenses: business leadership, political leadership, historical events, geo-politics, and grassroots leadership.

What prompted this post was a recent interview on CBC Radio with retired Chief of Defense Staff, Rick Hillier. As with most who have served in top echelon positions–whether in business or government–when asked about leadership, the response is often an off-the-cuff definition of what leadership is. Hillier, who has written books on the subject since retiring, offered his own definition.

I can’t recall his definition.

In One Ear, Out the Other

To be honest it went in one ear and out the other. I’ve grown almost numb to the steady stream of definitions of leadership that abound in books, periodicals, and the media as a whole.

I then decided to Google a few search phrases, and received the following:

“Definition of leadership” - 73,700,000 results

“Definition of management” - 198,000,000 results

“Leadership versus management” - 26,400,000 results

I decided it was time to stop Googling and do some writing.

Undermanaged and Over-LedDuh-275x206

You won’t find a definition of leadership or management in this two-part series, because my aim is to provoke reflection and inquiry.

Indeed, one issue intertwined with the definition debate is that of leadership versus management as functions: are they distinct or complementary?

To assist your reflection, I’ll provide a few perspectives from some respected thinkers and practitioners in the field.

As a start, Henry Mintzberg (McGill University) argues that organizations have been “undermanaged and over-led.” Now there’s something on which to think. (We’ll return to Mintzberg in Part Two).

We Know It When We See It

Our ongoing love affair with leadership as a topic is somewhat perplexing. Its pervasiveness extends from community meetings to corporate boardrooms to national politics to military campaigns. Our hunger for clarity in a sea of world turmoil and unpredictability forces us to look to those we perceive as having the answers.  Along the way, we engage in conversations and debates on just what our personal views or definitions of leadership are.

U.S. Justice Potter Stewart’s well quoted remark from a 1964 court case dealing with censorship in the movie industry (on “hard-core pornography… I know it when I see it”) has the parallel for effective leadership: we know it when we see it.

Nailing Jell-O to the Wall

Trying to establish a definitive definition of leadership is impossible.

Even attempting to create a generally accepted definition is more difficult than nailing Jell-O to the wall.

And that leaves us with what’s becoming a largely redundant conceptual debate, when what really needs to be explored is the inter-relationship between leadership and management - the latter of which has become the poor cousin as we contend with operating in an increasingly chaotic global environment.


In Part Two of this series we’ll look at what some of the big thinkers have been saying on leadership and management: their distinct aspects and complementarities.

Curiosity did not kill this cat.

   - Studs Terkel

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Posted by Jim Taggart
Posted on April 26, 2011

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Categories: competitiveness, current events, hr & talent management, leadership, management