Leadership vs. Management? What's the Difference and Why it Matters

By John Obradovich on March 11, 2020

Editor's Note: This post was written by guest contributor Dr. John Obradavich, an adjunct faculty member for Cornerstone University's Professional & Graduate Studies.

The titles of manager or leader are often interchanged in daily conversation. Both can often indicate the person in charge who makes decisions, guides the organization or group in strategic direction, and who people can look up to for fulfilling objectives.

However, these terms may not be as interchangeable as often accepted. Sure, the list of responsibilities may be the same for both leaders and managers. But the way in which each role is fulfilled may be drastically different. Here, we share a brief history of the disciplines of management and leadership and why the distinction between them is important to recognize.

The Study of Management and Leadership

There have always been people in charge. But the study of those in leadership-type roles is a fairly new concept.

As a discipline in the social sciences, the area of management itself has had a comparatively short life span. While there is increasing scholarly thought in other disciplines within the social sciences such as sociology, economics, and psychology dating back to the late 18th century, the field of "management" began to develop as a discipline in the late 19th century.

This increase in research and scholarly thinking about what management meant coincided with the demand for educated business managers during this time. Drawing on related disciplines early in its evolution, the management discipline grew in its academic rigor and overall legitimacy.

Adults looking at desktop monitor in office

Management vs. Leadership: There's a difference

Historically, the terms leading and managing were incorrectly used interchangeably. However, as early as the mid-1970s, researchers began to draw an important distinction between the two terms of leadership and management (Zaleznik & Kets de Vries, 1975). By the 1980s, researchers began to fully embrace the concept of developing leadership models which were distinct from models expressing the role that management plays in organizations.

Some leadership scholars (Bryman, 1993; Conger, 1999) argued that the difficulties in global competitiveness that organizations were facing during this era could be linked to the abundance of management skills while losing valuable true leadership competencies.

Transformational Leaders and Transactional Managers

Leadership was no longer equated as just management. There was more to the discipline. In 1978, Burns coined the terms transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Then, others (Bass, 1990; Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Conger, 1999) began to associate the term transformational with true leadership. They equated this with embracing employee empowerment and building a corporate culture that enables everyone to enjoy a greater sense of meaning in their work and be challenged to grow in their success (Bennis & Nanus, 1985).

Conversely, the term transactional leadership became associated with a style that embraced contractual exchanges of compliance for reward systems (Northouse, 2004). This type is what's often meant by management.

Management involves achieving organizational objectives through practices like planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling organizational resources (Northouse, 2004). Those who manage others rely on position power to influence others and maintain the status quo or equilibrium (Northouse, 2004).

Leadership, on the other hand, implies a changing environment that requires a strong champion rather than a manager to perpetuate the status quo. Collins (2001) drew the distinction between leading and managing by way of analogy, stating:

If I put a loaded gun to your head, I can get you to do things you might not otherwise do, but I've not practiced leadership; I've exercised power. True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to. (p. 13)

Here, Collins drew attention to the legitimate authority and power of managers versus the emergent authority of leaders.

Similarly, Pfeffer and Veiga (1999) noted two notions about what effective management means. They noted that "first is the idea that good managers are mean or tough, able to make such difficult choices as laying off thousands of people and acting decisively...the second is that good management is mostly a matter of good analysis" (p. 49). They concluded that it's in the act of management that particular attention is paid to analysis which restricts attention paid to things related more directly to leadership such as motivation, commitment, and morale.

Two females looking at laptop screen

Which approach? We need both

Leadership promotes an environment where followers are influenced by the leader whose focus is on people, vision, change and passion. This cultivates a sense of improved organizational success at various levels (Conger, 1999). Leaders are visionaries with a longer-term orientation who facilitate their followers’ achievements.

Conversely, management is associated with establishing and perpetuating the status quo. Managers often only step in when procedures are not being followed or goals are not being met (Bass, 1990). They achieve influence over others through formal and legitimate authority, and their subordinates are compelled to obey in return for rewards made available by compliance rather than to any sense of admiration of the manager. This environment is not always conducive to improved organizational success, depending on the specific circumstances (Conger, 1999).

Management and leadership both have applicability in the contemporary business environment. Leadership is not necessarily a replacement for prudent management practices. Instead, leadership is complementary to management.

Weaving together leadership and management practices, or transactional and transformational approaches, can pave the way toward organizational success that benefits all.

Take Your Next Steps in Directing Organizational Success

Discover how you can advance your knowledge and experiences in leadership and management with degree programs designed to get you where you want to be. Check out our various degree programs below.

Adult and Graduate Degree Programs


Bass, B. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.

Bass, B., & Steidlmeier, P. (1999). Ethics, character, and authentic transformational leadership behavior. Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 181.

Bennis, W. G., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper and Row.

Bryman, A. (1993). Charismatic leadership in business organizations: Some neglected issues. Leadership Quarterly, 4, 289-304.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper and Row.

Collins. J. (2001). Good to great. New York: HarperCollins.

Conger, J. (1999). Charismatic and transformational leadership in organizations: An insider's perspective on these developing streams of research. Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 145.

Northouse, P. (2004). Leadership theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pfeffer, J., & Veiga, J. (1999). Putting people first for organizational success. Academy of Management Executive, 13(2), 37-48.

Zaleznik, A., & Kets de Vries, M. (1975). Power and the corporate mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Category: Leadership