This article was first published in the September 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The only statistically proven difference between leadership and management is that leadership sells more books. I should know, as I write about both. However, that distinction devalues leadership and management alike: if everyone calls themselves a leader, leadership is devalued; and if no one wants to be called a manager, management is devalued.

In practice, many more managers than leaders are needed. For every heroic leader who changes the world, countless managers are required to make sure the trains run on time and the bread gets delivered before and after the revolution. In many ways, management is harder work than leadership: there is more ambiguity, fewer resources, less control and more stress than for a leader at the top.

Leadership and management are different, and not just because of book sales. Leadership is not about your title: you can lead at any level of a business. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger defined leadership as the art of taking people where they would not have got to by themselves. That means there are plenty of people with leadership titles who are not leading; they are managing a legacy they inherited more or less successfully. Equally, there will be people lower down in the hierarchy in a business who are leading, effecting change and taking their team or unit where they would not have reached by themselves. Leadership is about what you do, not your title.

This difference matters. It means that you do not have to manage before you lead; leadership and management are quite simply different beasts. Entrepreneurs show that you can lead long before you manage. Many of the world’s top billionaires had no management experience, but that did not stop them from changing the world and making a fortune. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Sergey Brin all lacked any management experience, but that did not stop them setting up Facebook, Microsoft and Google. They did not need management experience themselves because they could hire the best talent that stock options can buy.

Most businesses are deeply confused about leadership and management. They still think that leadership is about the job title rather than what the titleholder does. They compound the error by assuming that you cannot become a leader unless you have been a manager, even though the skills are completely different.

Most firms operate as a pyramid. At the top are a few senior executives who may or may not be leading. At the bottom are myriad workers actually making things happen. In between are managers of varying seniority. It is no longer necessary to start at the very bottom before you get to the top. The journey from post room to boardroom is rarely travelled, if only because a single lifetime career is becoming as rare as hen’s teeth.

Grinders, minders, finders

The pyramid principle is epitomised by professional services firms: many still operate on the basis of grinders, minders and finders. You start with the firm as a young graduate doing hard grunt work, or grinding. Do that well enough and you may become a minder, your job being to manage the work of the grinders, ensuring quality and timely delivery on budget. Do that well and you become an exalted finder, managing client relationships and bringing in the revenues. In other words, the apex of the professional services career is sales, although most prefer to refer to themselves as partners.

Partners are often not leaders – they may be highly skilled salespeople managing client relationships and major projects. But even if they are not leading, they are still doing a fundamentally different job: they are finders, not minders or grinders. Success at one level does not mean you will succeed at the next; managing a project is different from selling one.

The pyramid firm works, but at huge cost. The logic is that only when you have served your time will you really understand the nature of the business and be able to deliver to clients. In practice, it is also a useful way of keeping junior people in their place. The implicit promise is that if you work hard and pay your dues you may eventually be admitted to the club of privilege at the top of the firm. Inevitably, this is a promise that can be kept for the few, not the many. But the ‘manage-then-lead’ myth is dangerous for two reasons:

  • Not all leaders are good managers; they are very different sorts of role. There is no reason why someone with deep expertise in managing the supply chain, dealing with customers or running IT projects can become a leader who changes the direction of the whole business. In professional services, there is no reason why someone who is good at managing projects should be good at managing client relationships. The result is that people who could be very good in leadership roles never get there because they are not good enough as managers.
  • Not only do some good leaders never get discovered, but not all good managers are good leaders. In professional services, not all minders (managers) can become good finders (sales and client relations). The skills required are simply different.

We need to value management more, and ensure that leadership is about performance, not position. Then we can build both great leaders and great managers.

Jo Owen is a best-selling and award-winning leadership author, keynote speaker and social entrepreneur. His latest book is Myths of Leadership