‘I’ve always been told to think of myself as either a leader or a manager’, said one of my students, ‘but never as both.’

Most of his colleagues agreed. Most had been told by teachers, consultants and coaches that leaders and managers are distinct and separate people.

In nearly 15 years of teaching MBA students, I have heard few statements that horrified me more. We have educated a generation – perhaps two – to believe that it is not possible to be a leader and a manager at the same time.

Result? We have managers who cannot and will not lead, because they believe that leadership is someone else’s responsibility. We have created a culture of shifting responsibility and blame, of buck-passing, of ‘sorry, that’s above my pay grade’, by telling managers that it is not their responsibility to lead. And at the other end of the scale, we have a cadre of leaders who believe management is beneath them. We’re the visionaries, they say; detail is for other people. Then when things go wrong, they throw up their hands and protest that nothing is their fault. From their position of lofty eminence, how are they supposed to know what is going on down on the ground below?

This separation of leadership and management is in part – in large part – responsible for the sorry mess that we are in now. We have leaders who cannot manage and managers who cannot lead; a lethal cocktail of ignorance and incompetence, for which we in the educational system – and I mean trainers, consultants and coaches as well as business schools – are responsible.

The separation between leadership and management emerged in the 1970s and 1980s from the work of scholars such as John Kotter and Warren Bennis, who attempted to reach a better understanding of what leadership is. In doing so, they defined management and leadership as two separate sets of tasks. Management is about getting things done on a daily basis; leadership is about creating vision and setting direction.

Beale cartoon

Organisations clearly need both. From this body of work, we can see that there may be a case for talking about leadership and management as two separate things. But why does this mean that leaders and managers are two separate groups of people?

Let us take as an analogy, breathing and thinking. Both are clearly quite distinctive and separate tasks, But according to current thinking in management education, there should instead be two types of people: those that breathe but do not think, and those that think but do not breathe.

This is clearly absurd and the same absurdity applies to the division of management and leadership. To function as human beings, we need to be capable of both breathing and thinking. In exactly the same way, people in business must be capable of both managing and leading. Leaders who do not know how to manage will sooner or later be undone by their lack of technical knowledge and competence. Managers who cannot or will not lead will lose the confidence of their colleagues and subordinates. People look up to and respect those who are willing to take charge. The ‘above my pay grade’ mentality is a swift and certain way of demotivating and demoralising those around you.

Management and leadership are different things, but managers and leaders should be one and the same person.

We need people who can both inspire and control, who have both vision and an eye for fine detail, who can look at both the short term and the long term; who can both think and breathe. But today, thanks to the pernicious separation of leadership and management, we have very few people who can bridge the gap. This has been glaringly apparent during the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, when those at the top of organisations have been seen to flounder helpless while the lower ranks stand by, refusing to step up and take responsibility.

We in management education created this mess and now we need to clean it up. The first step is to close the gap and teach leadership and management as integrated subjects. We – teachers, business schools and management educators – need to encourage students to step up, to take responsibility, to be prepared for the tasks of leadership. By teaching leadership and management together, we can help people become more effective leaders and more responsible managers – at one and the same time. It may not be the cure for all our problems, but it is a good start.

The author is a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter Business School.

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article