The difference between leaders and managers

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flow diagram showing the difference between leaders and managers

3 minute read

Tl;dr: Hybrid Leader-managers could be one of the keys to successful software teams but first you need to understand the difference between the two. 

A higher quality version of the model can be found on my Miro board.

The default style for most leadership within the software teams is towards a management style which caters for managing complexity through process and routines.  But by understanding the differences between management and leadership we can better create hybrid leader-managers. This approach is beneficial for software teams as the work they do can at time be highly complex. 

Complex work can be described as work that has an uncertain outcome due to the many variables that can affect it. These variables can be known or unknown either before, during and after the work is completed.

Leader-managers styles are best suited for leads that work closely to where the work is happening as the hybrid model takes into account that some work is routine, and therefore a management style is suitable and some work is innovative and therefore leadership approach is more appropriate. The further up the hierarchy you go the more a leadership style is suited as this enables the organisation to better handle change. 

Being able to adapt to change is a now a feature of almost all software teams and ones that a better equipped to adapt to it are more likely to succeed on more dimensions of success other than just delivering what the users want. Successful dimensions could be sustainable team performance, team member satisfaction and delivering end user value consistently. 

What does this model illustrate? 

Based on a HBR article what do leaders really do by John P. Kotter it shows that management is about reducing complexity through standardisation and making work efficient. This heads organisations towards certainty. Leadership on the other hand is all about creating change within the organisations and embracing the complexity that exists. They do this through communication and motivating the organisation towards that change.


On the left are the management styles for handling complexity within organisations through three distinct approaches. Managers communicate what needs to be done through planning and budgeting. Create networks of people and relationships to do the work by hiring and organising them. Finally making sure the work happens by managing complexity and solving problems.


On the right are the leadership approaches for creating change within organisations. Leaders communicate what needs to be done by setting the direction the organisation is heading in and letting the employees figure out how they get there. They create networks of people and relationships to do the work not by telling them to collaborate but by aligning them through that direction. Leaders make sure that the work happens by motivating those people to solve problems for themselves instead of handing them solutions.

Which is better?

As is clear from the model management and leadership do have their differences but it’s not about one approach being better than the other but that they are complementary to each other. It is almost like they balance each other from the extremes of just following one approach.

Do you see a difference between management and leadership?

How have you been led or managed in the past?

Does this model change your approach to leadership and management?

Let me know in the comment below

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