The Difference Between Leadership & Management

The Difference Between Leadership & Management

Organisation Health specialist ALISON COULTER looks at the differences between leadership and management, and how to build an effective culture in the aid sector.

Leadership and management increasingly seem to be used interchangeably. But they often refer to the same people, team or group within organisations. Some organisations use the term leadership, and will have a ‘Senior Leadership Team’, or a ‘Leadership Team’. Others some will talk about management, and may have an ‘Executive Management Team’, or talk about managers within the organisation. I have heard ‘management’ used in a derogatory or negative way in some organisations, and in others, ‘leadership’ suggests a faceless hierarchy with ideas often felt by the rest of the organisation to be out of touch with what will work on the ground!

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent global think tank, put on an event last summer focusing on the wellbeing of aid workers. During the discussion, there was a focus on the importance of management, and the role of managers, but less discussion about the importance of leadership, and how this impacted staff wellbeing in the humanitarian aid sector.  

So what is the difference between leadership and management? One suggestion is that managers have people who work for them, and leaders have people who follow them! In his book Leading Change, John Kotter says:

“Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving.

He then goes on to say:

Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.”

Kotter suggests that management is about running things well, so organisations are able to operate efficiently and effectively. Leadership is much harder to define and measure, and is to do with inspiring people to achieve a vision, even against the odds. 

In the UK’s National Health Service, where I have spent much of my career, there is an acknowledgement that one of the most important aspects of leadership is creating the culture of an organisation. This was highlighted by The Francis Report, which looked at what went wrong in a hospital trust with a higher death rate. In the NHS, we know that good leadership is essential to create a culture of compassion in order for high quality care to be delivered to patients by staff. Work by Professor Michael West looked at the importance of caring for staff, who care for others, and in his work found that good leadership was associated with good teams delivering better clinical care and better outcomes for patients.  

“In my experience, good leaders work with staff at all levels … listening and re-evaluating, in order to set a clear direction and strategy for the organisation”

I would suggest that good leadership creates good teams delivering more effective outcomes in other sectors too, including the humanitarian aid sector. In the humanitarian aid sector, while good management is essential to make sure things run smoothly, perhaps good leadership is even more important? Good leadership establishes a culture of care, compassion, wellbeing and thriving for staff, who care for others. To use a picture from another industry, we need to put on our own oxygen masks before we help others with theirs.  

2018 has been a year of horrific safeguarding scandals and devastating suicides in our sector. There is much talk of the need for culture change, to make sure these things don’t happen again. If we want culture change then we need to think about what good and effective leadership looks like. In my experience good leaders:

  • Set an inspiring vision and unite people in a common goal and purpose
  • Model behaviours and live out their values and the organisations’ values, setting the tone for the organisation
  • Work with staff at all levels in an organisation, listening and re-evaluating, in order to set a clear direction and strategy for the organisation
  • Provide support for their staff as they deliver the mission of the organisation day to day

Culture is about behaviour – ‘the way we do things round here’.  The behaviour of leaders is critically important in driving a virtous cycle of positive change.  Leaders who have a vision for better organisations, who care, who listen, who acknowledge stress and put in measures to support the wellbeing of their staff will be those who change culture.  Good management is important for things to run smoothly, but if we want culture change, then we need to talk more about leadership and what good leadership looks like. 

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