What’s the difference between leadership and management – and why does it matter?

In listening to conversations about leadership development, I’ve noticed a tendency that at first I attributed to a slip of the tongue. People say things like, “So good management – I mean, leadership – requires [this that and the other].” Some people even suggest that management and leadership are really the same thing and that “leadership” sounds more enticing, so more lawyers (both at the associate and partner/management levels) are willing to play along.

I completely disagree.  Management is an important skill. “Management” derives from the Latin manu “hand” and from the Italian word maneggiare, meaning “to handle.” One who manages defines a goal or adopts a goal defined by someone else, creates a process or an approach to accomplish the goal, and uses rewards and consequences to get team members to do what’s necessary to get there. A manager typically determines how to reach the goal and requires the subordinates to work according to that plan. Often in a law firm, management is a “horizontal” approach, meaning that managers fall into a defined group and those

managers oversee the work of subordinates.

Leadership does bear some similarities to management, especially because leadership may exist in a variety of styles, some of which bear particular resemblance to management. “To lead” derives from the Old English word lædan, meaning to “cause to go with one” and which in turn derives from liðan, “to travel.” One who leads is acting on a goal that has been defined as the organization’s goal, and the attainment of that goal is generally most effective when the members of the organization have mutually adopted the goal. A leader works with the organization’s members to call forth their best efforts to reach the goal and generally leaves some latitude in how the members choose to approach their tasks. Leadership may also be considered as a “vertical” approach, in which a leader works with subordinates to develop their own abilities so that they may ascend to leadership as well.

Much has been written on the distinctions between management and leadership, and I certainly won’t seek to recapitulate that work. However, simply looking at the derivation of the words – “to handle” as opposed to “to cause to go with one” – gives a sense of the differences.

So, what does this mean in practice? Recognizing that management and leadership draw on different skills opens the opportunity to decide which set of skills to apply in any given situation. Under some circumstances, management may be necessary to accomplish a set of tasks quickly and in compliance with a particular expectation, perhaps in pulling together a comprehensive case outline for a status conference. Other situations may benefit from leadership, such as setting the strategy for a matter when a team seeks to accomplish a particular goal for a client and each member may have insights or creative ideas of how to do so.

Test this yourself. For the next couple of weeks, when you’re supervising others in some ways, consider whether management or leadership would be most effective. Make a few notes in your journal or on your computer about the situation, what factors cause you think that management (or leadership) will create the best results, how you choose to manage (or lead), and what results the team realizes. This planning and reflection should take less than 10 minutes total, but the insight you’ll gain will be significant.

(This post was drawn from an article published in this week’s Leadership Matters for Lawyers, a weekly e-newsletter that provides articles and resources designed to boost readers’ leadership abilities and practice. Please click on the box below to view past issues and to subscribe to Leadership Matters to Lawyers.)

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