Editor’s Note: What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter is an excerpt from HBR’s 10 Must Reads “On Leadership,” a compilation of Harvard Business Review articles.
By John P. Kotter
Leadership is different from management, but not for the reasons most people think.
Leadership isn’t mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having “charisma” or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few. Nor is leadership necessarily better than management or a replacement for it.
Rather, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.
Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled. They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership.
Successful corporations don’t wait for leaders to come along. They actively seek out people with leadership potential and expose them to career experiences designed to develop that potential. Indeed, with careful selection, nurturing, and encouragement, dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.
But while improving their ability to lead, companies should remember that strong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse. The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance the other.
Of course, not everyone can be good at both leading and managing. Some people have the capacity to become excellent managers but not strong leaders. Others have great leadership potential but, for a variety of reasons, have great difficulty becoming strong managers. Smart companies value both kinds of people and work hard to make them a part of the team.
But when it comes to preparing people for executive jobs, such companies rightly ignore the recent literature that says people cannot manage and lead. They try to develop leader-managers. Once companies understand the fundamental difference between leadership and management, they can begin to groom their top people to provide both.
The difference between management and leadership
Management is about coping with complexity. Its practices and procedures are largely a response to one of the most significant developments of the 20th Century: the emergence of large organizations. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence.
Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products.
Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.
Part of the reason it has become so important in recent years is that the business world has become more competitive and more volatile. Faster technological change, greater international competition, the deregulation of markets, overcapacity in capital-intensive industries, an unstable oil cartel, raiders with junk bonds, and the changing demographics of the workforce are among the many factors that have contributed to this shift.
The net result is that doing what was done yesterday, or doing it 5 percent better, is no longer a formula for success. Major changes are more and more necessary to survive and compete effectively in this new environment. More change always demands more leadership.
Consider a simple military analogy: A peacetime army can usually survive with good administration and management up and down the hierarchy, coupled with good leadership concentrated at the very top. A wartime army, however, needs competent leadership at all levels. No one yet has figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led.
These two different functions — coping with complexity and coping with change — shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership. Each system of action involves deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda, and then trying to ensure that those people actually do the job. But each accomplishes these three tasks in different ways.
Companies manage complexity first by planning and budgeting — setting targets or goals for the future (typically for the next month or year), establishing detailed steps for achieving those targets, and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans.
By contrast, leading an organization to constructive change begins by setting a direction — developing a vision of the future (often the distant future) along with strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision.
Management develops the capacity to achieve its plan by organizing and staffing — creating an organizational structure and set of jobs for accomplishing plan requirements, staffing the jobs with qualified individuals, communicating the plan to those people, delegating responsibility for carrying out the plan, and devising systems to monitor implementation.
The equivalent leadership activity, however, is aligning people. This means communicating the new direction to those who can create coalitions that understand the vision and are committed to its achievement.
Finally, management ensures plan accomplishment by controlling and problem solving — monitoring results versus the plan in some detail, both formally and informally, by means of reports, meetings, and other tools; identifying deviations; and then planning and organizing to solve the problems.
But for leadership, achieving a vision requires motivating and inspiring — keeping people moving in the right direction, despite major obstacles to change, by appealing to basic but often untapped human needs, values, and emotions.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Leadership. Copyright 2011 Harvard Business Review Press. All rights reserved.