To Manage or To Lead in the Workplace

To manage or to lead in the workplace is a false dilemma because the nature of modern work demands both management and leadership skills. There is consensus across business researchers that management focuses on planning and executing work tasks while leadership focuses on visioning and engaging others to support the vision.

The work situation can dictate when management skills are more important or when leadership skills are more important. For example, management skills like planning and doing work tasks are more important when a person is leading a group of highly motivated and innovative people in order to keep the group on track amidst high energy and idea overload. But leadership skills like visioning and engaging are more important when a person is leading a change initiative in order to inspire others with vision and influence others with people skills to support the change. Curiously, both management and leadership skills are important once work progresses. When a group of highly motivated and innovative people being managed get stuck in disagreement, then leadership skills are needed to resolve the disagreement and move forward. Also, when a leader inspires others with vision and influences others to support a change, then management skills are needed for executing the work needed to realize the change. In the current work environment, bosses and project leaders must understand the management and leadership skills needed to be successful in a given situation.

Organizational behavior research finds that in high-performing organizations, bosses and project leaders exercise both management and leadership skills. For example, communication skills and leadership skills is what distinguishes the managers at the top of their profession ( Further, three of the five key factors impacting employee job performance can be supported by managers with leadership skills ( The three factors impacting employee job performance that are influenced by managers are how the employee is treated at work, the amount of stress, and work attitude. An employee’s boss can have a disproportionate impact on how an employee feels treated at work, their stress level, and their work attitude. Like the time my new boss said he never supported the formation of my group – how did he expect me to perform after that lack of endorsement? Treatment, stress, and work attitude are embodied in a person’s inner work-life experience or their psychological work experience as they are engaging in their work. Teresa Amabile, a renowned creativity researcher, found that an employee’s inner work-life experience predicted creativity and work performance ( Amabile found that creativity and work performance were highest for the most positive inner work-life experiences. Thus, managers who develop the leadership skills needed to promote positive inner work-life experiences for employees will have higher performing employees.

Professional associations dedicated to the career development of their members espouse the need to ascertain leadership style appropriate to a given situation and be able to manage projects, budgets, and staff with competence ( Austrian psychologist Fred Fiedler postulated that different leadership styles fit to different situations back in the 1960’s. Fiedler developed the Fiedler contingency model for two different leadership styles of task-oriented versus relationship-oriented. Fiedler developed an assessment for these two different leadership styles based on identifying the co-worker you least enjoyed working with and rating that person on a scale of 1 to 8 for each of 16 sets of contrasting adjectives. A high score on the assessment meant you rated this coworker in favorable terms and were relationship-oriented. A low score on the assessment meant you rated this coworker in unfavorable terms and were task-oriented. Fiedler found that 84% of respondents rated either high or low on the assessment while the remaining 16% rated in the middle. Fiedler found that task-oriented leaders performed best when followers respected and trusted the leader and there was high structure in the work or the leader had positional power over the followers. In contrast, Fiedler found that relationship-oriented leaders performed best when there was moderate control in the form of high structure in the work, positional power or respect and trust in the leader. Fiedler’s research was not only the first evidence that the leadership style required depends on the situation but also showed that leadership can happen without positional power.

The nature of work has changed over time so both leadership and management styles have had to adapt to accommodate these changes. The changes to work have produced more leadership and management styles today than in the past. Professionals who understand a range of leadership and management styles can recognize the intrinsic traits and approaches they bring to a given leadership situation and identify new skills and approaches needed. Leadership styles can be based on overall approach such as visioning, transaction-orientation, collaboration, pace-centered, and more ( Leadership styles can also be based on interaction preferences such as hands-on, cooperative, ethical, and more ( There are also leadership styles based on traits like pacesetting, coaching, affiliative, directive, participative, and authoritative ( The point of learning about different leadership styles is not to find the one leadership style that fits all situations because that does not exist. The point of learning about different leadership styles is to learn the array of approaches and skills available to leaders and discover the approaches and skills that will be best suited to a given leadership situation.

To manage or to lead is a false choice because you need to do both in today’s workplaces. If you are managing a project or a group, then you need to lead the people impacted by your decisions where they need to go and how they need to behave in support of the project or group objective. If you are leading by enlisting support for your vision of a better future, then you will need to manage the steps and actions to realize that vision once you have a team in place. If you try to choose management or leadership, then your performance and the impact you can have will fall short of what is possible. To maximize your leadership performance, become a student of leadership and management to discover the vast array of tools and approaches available to handle different workplace situations.

The comparison between leadership and management is similar to the comparison between psychological safety and accountability. Psychological safety is an environment of low interpersonal fear that encourages people to speak with candor. Accountability is taking responsibility for your actions and work performance. Psychological safety and accountability are different but both are needed in the workplace just as leadership and management are different but both are needed in the workplace. Leadership and Management Professor Amy C. Edmondson compared psychological safety and accountability in an interview as follows (

“Of course, if you are ONLY creating psychological safety, then you are creating a comfort zone. And if you are ONLY talking about accountability for excellence, then you are creating an anxiety zone where people are less able to do their best work. But if you are able to simultaneously create psychological safety and drive motivation, you can get people into the learning zone, which also happens to be the high-performance zone.”

Leadership and Management Professor Amy C. Edmondson

If you are only exercising leadership skills like visioning and inspiring, then you can create stress and frustration for those who are looking for guidance and direction. If you are only exercising management skills like planning and execution, then you can create stress and frustration for those full of ideas of how to do things better. But, if you are exercising both leadership and management skills in the right measure for the situation, then you can create motivation and results.