Leadership vs Management Part 1: Finding the Harmony 

May, 2024

In professional discourse, an important distinction is often made between “leadership” and “management.” In practice, however, the business world tends to collapse the two. Defining and understanding these distinct skill sets is critical — especially considering that leadership is actually an “opposite yet complementary function to management,” according to Unstoppable co-founder Vikram Maraj. 

For anyone to effectively guide an organization toward a successful future, honing strong leadership and management skills is essential — understanding how and when to use each is like conducting a symphony. And when we find the harmony by hitting the right notes at the right time? “It can be magic,” says Unstoppable co-founder Kevin Gangel. 

In this interview — the first in our three-part Leadership vs Management series — Vikram and Kevin share their perspectives on leadership and management, how the two differ, and how they complement one another. 

Describe Unstoppable’s notion of management — why is it necessary and when is it needed? 

Kevin Gangel: Management is the art of getting it done. It’s having the right things in the right place at the right time so the right people can accomplish what they did yesterday, doing it just as good or maybe even better. It’s complex, has lots of moving parts, and demands rigor, attention to detail, and hard work. It’s the perfect recipe for maintaining, protecting, and extending the success of the past. If continuing the hard-won success of the past is the name of the game, then go no further. Sharpen the management saw and progress steadily and efficiently from A to B to C, fighting fires and slaying dragons as necessary along the way.

Vikram Maraj: Managing ensures that the predictable happens. In other words, what has been painstakingly thought out and planned must now be effectively executed to reach the goal we all want to achieve. Management requires scheduling the right cadence of communication and a diligent awareness of all the moving parts. Management requires the ability to hold oneself and others to account. Management is ensuring that everyone has promises for their deliverables and that they keep their word. Good managers are all over this stuff.

Leadership is required when what you want is a distinctly different future than anything you, your team, or your organization has experienced before. 

— Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

Describe Unstoppable’s notion of leadership — why it is necessary and when is it needed? 

VM: Leading ensures that the predictable does not happen. That’s right, it is an opposite yet complementary function to management. Management is critical when everyone wants the future they are headed toward. Leadership is critical when most or all do not want the future they are headed toward, such as being overtaken by competition, becoming obsolete by a shift in the market, a toxic leader, increasing silos in the organization, a merger of two incompatible cultures, etc. In other words, leadership means disrupting the trajectory the organization is on. 

KG: Leadership is required when what you want is a distinctly different future than anything you, your team, or your organization has experienced before. Leadership is not constrained by all the stuff — structures, systems, processes, beliefs — we already have. It doesn’t demand that we discard any of that, but it is unconstrained by the infrastructure, mental models, and patterns of the past. 

VM: Management is ensuring the stability of our current path. Leadership is an interruption to business as usual. 

Leadership is critical when most or all do not want the future they are headed toward . . . In other words, leadership means disrupting the trajectory the organization is on. 

— Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

With these two concepts being so distinct, why do people often confuse or conflate the two? 

KG: Good leadership and good management both seem like they’re focused on the future. Where are we going? What are we going to do to get there? That’s the future, right? Well, no. If your destination is a better version of yesterday, then your goal is inherently more of the past, just doing it again on a different day. If your destination is a future that no one has ever been to before, that’s an entirely different focus and requires a different art and science to get there.

VM: Although people do make the distinction, I’m surprised by how many people say, yeah yeah yeah, I heard that already. But they don’t live it. If someone reports to you, you must be their “leader.” In politics, if you win enough votes, you’re a “leader.” If you’re first in a race, you’re the “leader.” The word leader has meant one’s position, popularity, the loudest, the most vocal, the one people follow, the one who’s in first place — but it has rarely meant “someone who can alter the predictable future.”  

KG: A future where anything is possible, truly possible, requires us to see and authentically articulate the path we’re currently on precisely so that we can envision and name a new path. In that future, all the existing infrastructure, systems, and processes can be seen in a new light and suddenly have new and unique uses. Think of the scene from Apollo 13 where they reinvent an air filter from equipment never meant for that purpose. That’s an example of existing material being transformed for a whole new purpose. Leadership is seeing and driving that transformation. 

Can managers be leaders? Can leaders be managers? Can managers become leaders?

VM: Anyone can be either at any moment. We have the capacity for both. “Leader” and “manager” can be ways of being. Consider that most people we call leaders are being managers. In other words, they naturally spend their time and attention on scheduling, planning, budgeting, and adjusting — “keeping things on track.” On the flip side, consider that some people we call managers are actually being leaders. They naturally have their attention on “what could be.” They spend their time and attention on aligning people toward a future that is discontinuous with the past. These leaders include the sh*t disturbers who make life hell for the organization as well as the Nelson Mandelas and Steve Jobs of the world who introduce and realize new possibilities. 

KG: Everyone who is up to anything that matters needs to cultivate both management skills and leadership skills. You can’t play both tunes at the same time, but you can get really good at riffing between the two, blending moments of leadership with moments of management. The harmony of hitting the right notes at the right time can be magic. 

Great leaders know when to step in, call bullsh*t, ask hard and disruptive questions, demand what seems impossible, and manage big risks with lots at stake. They also know when to step back, keep their mouth shut, leave well enough alone, and — especially — let others lead in their stead, including encouragement and safety for failure.

Great managers know when to say “I don’t know,” when to ask for help, and when to shut down production for a moment to see if it’s still safe/effective/workable/viable. They know when to name and let go of sacred cows and how to manage themselves out of a position that is no longer required.

The world needs great managers. The world needs great leaders. And the world needs people who can tell the difference between the two and which is called for in each moment as the world shifts around us.

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