Management is a role. Leadership is an act.

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 10-16-13

My friend John Hunter who’s mix of insight and intellectual integrity has been a strong role model in the blogging world of continuous improvement. His Curious Cat Management Improvement blog is a great tribute to its own name, and John’s comments often embarrass me by going deeper than my own blog posts.

So, I had to read with interest his post Managers are Not Non-Leaders.

As I read the title, let alone the content, I’m reminded of a saying I’m often repeating: Management is a role. Leadership is an act.

I’ll disagree with John on one point. John states:

If you want to call managers, leaders because you like that term better than is fine.

I disagree. I believe where the wheels came off the bus on this one is exactly when we started putting leader into job titles. It’s part of the job-title inflation, which is when you can’t give someone a raise, you give them an inflated title. This is why your local bank branch has 3 Vice Presidents, instead of “Assistant Branch Manager.” It sounds good. But the problem is, in the shuffle, the word “leader” lost meaning in the process.

Management is a job that we do. We are responsible for a set of decisions, resources, problems, and outcomes. Doing all the hard work to maintain the current trajectory of performance is hard enough. Just to do that, you must be an effective manager. Leadership is about changing that trajectory. And anyone, in any role, can have an act of leadership.

If you’re the CEO, you have different tools of leadership available to you than if you’re an individual contributor, but any person on any day in any moment can have an act of leadership. You just need the vision, the courage, the skill, the will to take that moment (oh, is that all? I didn’t say it was easy).

As John articulates, good is good and lousy is lousy.

Managers that don’t care about effectiveness are lousy managers.

Leaders that don’t care about the gemba are lousy leaders.

Doctors that don’t care about patients are lousy doctors.

Nurses that don’t care about theory are lousy nurses.

The point is, stop worrying about whether you’re a “leader” or a “manager” and just focus on doing whatever you do better.

Please read John’s article. And I would love to hear your comments below.

Reflection question: how do you distinguish leadership from management?


  • Interesting question. Recently attended a half day class on this at Comcast just last month.
    In a sentence, I would say you have to follow managers, but you want to follow leaders.
    Thanks for the always interesting posts, Jamie.

    Jason Michener October 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm
  • I agree using leaders in job titles is not a good idea, as you explain. I have become a bit exasperated by the whole leaders v. managers thought process which results in accepting a not very good ideas – using leader in job title.

    John Hunter October 16, 2013 at 7:57 pm
  • In my opinion, leaders drive change for the better. The concept of a “manager” sounds very much like trying to maintain the status quo.

    There’s a reason many quarterbacks and football coaches become referred to as “game managers” – they are the ones who try to kill the clock, reduce risk, bend but not break, and prevent losing. A leader on the field is someone who has to work with his ten teammates to properly execute cutting into a deficit or expanding their current lead over the opponent.

    Chad Walters October 25, 2013 at 10:18 am
  • […] Management is a role. Leadership is an act. by Jamie Flinchbaugh – “The point is, stop worrying about whether you’re a ‘leader’ or a ‘manager’ and just focus on doing whatever you do better.” […]

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  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about leaders.

    Bancless June 4, 2014 at 12:27 am