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What is Leadership Anyway?

What does leadership actually mean? When we think about leadership, many people like to talk about specific traits, characteristics, or behaviors that define effective leaders. The trouble with defining leadership in that way is that those traits, characteristics and behaviors are often specific to a situation and can vary from organization to organization. Traits, characteristics and behaviors that work well in one situation may not work in others. What are common across all situations? The outcomes that leadership produces.

In simplest terms, leadership is about the performance of teams, groups and organizations (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). Good leadership promotes effective team and group performance. This in turn enhances the well-being of the people being led. When we think about great leaders we often talk about what they did more than how they did it. Bad leadership on the other hand degrades the quality of life for those impacted by that leader.

Based upon these insights, we can see that the traits and behaviors of leadership are best defined in terms of their outcomes. Those outcomes can be good or bad, but those classifications are simply a way to grade a leader’s effectiveness.

Thinking about a leader’s effectiveness often leads to a discussion of the differences between leadership and management. This debate is very tricky as the two terms are often used interchangeably. Even when people do recognize that there is a difference, those delineation can get quite fuzzy. Ask ten different people the difference between leadership and management and you might get eleven different responses. While the details of those responses may vary, the overall context commonly breaks down into something about leaders being charismatic and admired, and managers being organizational taskmasters with a whip in one hand and a bullhorn in the other (Kotterman, 2006).

This comparison would suggest that the difference is a matter of style. This is a very common misconception. In truth, the difference between leadership and management is actually a matter of function. When we look at those functional differences in detail, it becomes easy to see why there is such confusion.

Leaders and managers are both involved in activities such as establishing direction, aligning resources, and motivating people. Managers, however, tend to be task focused (e.g., budgeting and planning); while leaders tend to be more focused on direction and vision. Managers’ activities are focused on maintaining order and a stable work environment. Leaders are looking at new goals and how to align the organization’s priorities. A manager maintains control and solves problems. A leader motivates and inspires those around them. An effective manager should produce standards, consistency, predictability and order for their team and/or organization. An effective leader should produce the potential for dramatic change, but an ineffective leader can also create chaos and even failure (Kotterman, 2006).

Taking all this into account, we can say that leadership and management are two different things. Does that mean that a person must choose to be one or the other? The answer is absolutely not. The best leaders/managers are both at the same time. Former GE CEO Jack Welch is a prime example of this. Of course this also means that there are some people with authority in organizations who are neither. Won’t name names here, but their stories make for some of the most interesting reads in the Wall Street Journal. The real question is how does someone do both effectively at the same time? The answer to that question is somewhat complicated and one we’ll try to start looking at next time.


Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 169–180.

Kotterman, J. (2006). Leadership versus management: What's the difference? The Journal for Quality & Participation, 29(2), 13–17.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.