Leading vs. Managing

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Earlier this month, I read an opinion column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.   The author, a fundraiser at a small college, articulated the difference between leadership and management:

While some elements of good leadership and good management overlap, I think the two are fundamentally different concepts. A leader operates on a higher plane, providing inspiration, vision, commitment, and passion. A manager is more grounded, offering stability, solutions, equity. A leader dispenses wisdom; a manager, advice. A leader asks, “What if?”; a manager says, “How so?”. A leader lights fires; a manager stokes the flames. Simplistic differentiations, perhaps, but that’s how I define them.

You may assume it’s easier to become a good manager than a good leader, though I’m no living proof of that. I don’t think my years of management experience have made me a better manager. Perhaps that’s because I have little patience for sweaty details, for personality conflicts and petty office politics and budget adjustments and process re-engineering and schedule monitoring. I need help with all that. It’s mighty important, mind you, but a big part of me sees all of that as pure tedium.

The “what if” vs. “how so” distinction has poetic appeal, but in workplaces – many non-elite law schools included – small staffs and budgets mean that administrators need to be leaders and vice versa.   It is fabulous to have a visionary Director of Admissions, for example, but  the person at the top  of the pyramid sometimes has to read some admissions files, too.   A  Director of Career Services  can spout  lofty rhetoric about expanding employment opportunities for graduates, but that may mean making lots of phone calls to cajole employers into showing up at the on-campus recruiting fair.   An Associate Dean may articulate “new” ideas about the future of legal education, but sometimes his or her vision needs to be applied to getting that sink on the third floor fixed – fast.   Why?   Because good leadership and management of small organizations usually go together.   If we have no idea how things actually get done, all the vision in the world won’t inspire others to follow.   And if we only see details and not a bigger, different picture, we will always do things the same way.  

Another potential pitfall of the leadership/management distinction is gender stereotyping.   Workplace culture can encourage men to “light fires” (e.g., come up with ideas) and  require  women to “stoke the flames” (e.g., do committee work, execute others’ plans, do the “housekeeping” work for the school).   We lack enough employment models in which women and men do both.

The full Chronicle article is here.  

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Leading vs. Managing

  1. Ralph M. Stein says:

    Very good and apt observations.

    My training in leadership and its application came as a young Army officer. The best officers under whom I served would not have comprehended a leadership/management dichotomy. To effectively lead is not only to manage but to empower those for whom one is responsible to take initiatives too.

    With regard to law schools today, I wonder if “management” is not a synonym for “risk aversion.”

  2. saqib says:


    I agree with the point you are making. Leaders and Manager don’t belong in two different camps. However, there are micro-managers and then there are leading/visionary managers. Micro-managers fret about the every single minor detail. Whereas manging leaders come up with ideas, and leave the implementation details to their competent employees.

    Saqib Ali