The Management versus Leadership Fallacy

‘After an innings of 30 odd years the management versus leadership fallacy needs to be dismissed.’

In the period 1916 to the mid 1970’s’ the terms manager and leader were used interchangeably by both academics in the field of organisation theory and practising managers. Traditionally the concept of ‘leadership’ was subsumed under the broader concept of ‘management’, as one of its four functions namely, planning, organising, leading (alternatively termed ‘motivating’) and controlling (Fayol, 1949; Koontz and O’Donnel, 1972).

However, in the subsequent period from 1977 into the 1990’s, as a reaction to widespread concern, frustration and apprehension brought about by a period of significant and sometimes catastrophic failures of corporate, institutional and political governance in the USA, the scholarly publications of prominent academics and consulting academics started to differentiate and separate the concepts of management and leadership (Zaleznik, 1977; Bennis and Nanus, 1985; Bennis, 1989; Kotter, 1990; Kouzes and Posner, 1987). The research designs which underpinned these studies appear to have been somewhat anecdotal – based on open ended, or semi-structured interviews and observations. The Bennis study was done on a group of 28 successful, well respected business leaders and other prominent and influential individuals drawn from a cross-section of American society. The Kotter study also done in the USA, consisted of a larger sample of 200 managers and used questionnaire based information.

The findings and conclusions of these studies were quickly taken up and promoted in the popular press, conference papers and management seminars. Some academics differentiated between the concepts in a way that valued both the emerging importance of the visionary, strategic and innovative roles of leadership and respecting the traditional planning, organising and controlling roles of management. Certain prominent authors, the popular press and high profile OD consultants however, chose to polarise the concepts in a way that de-valued and demeaned the management role while idealising and extolling the virtues of leadership. Organisations and other major institutions in the USA, which were deemed not to have made the grade by some criterion or another were described as over managed and under led (Bennis - Quote). In double quick time, what may have been intended to differentiate the roles of leadership and management, placed them in opposition to each other: leadership versus management.

One such example is shown in Table 1 below:
Administers Innovates
Is a copy Is an original
Focuses on systems and structures Focuses on people
Relies on control Inspires trust
Has a short range view has a long range view
Imitates Originates
Does the right thing Does the right thing
(adapted from Bennis, 1989)

Predictably, since it is a well-known human tendency when confronted with polarities, and nudged by descriptive terms such as those used in Table 1, one pole was valued as ‘good’, and the other devalued as ‘bad’ (Burton, 2012). Governance failures were attributed to ‘management’, while the new emerging concept of ‘leadership’ became fashionable – idealised as the future salvation of corporations and institutions alike (Bennis, Kotter, Kouzes, ibid). Consequently, a strong and prescriptive emphasis was placed on the importance of providing strategic direction and painting ‘the big picture’; creating and communicating inspiring visions; developing sets of organisational values to anchor decision making and behaviour; innovating and initiating change and transformation. While some academics did take a more balanced view, stating that organisations, to be effective, needed both leaders and managers, they doubted the ability of any one individual to play both roles (Kotter, 1990). More generally, however, the literature, commentators and management development specialists split the roles of leading and managing into ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, respectively.

What suffered most, through this romance of leadership (Meindle, 1985) in the ensuing years were the implementation actions that make things happen in organisations, namely, setting specific goals, allocating and utilising of resources, performance monitoring and controlling, following up and administrating, meeting the bottom line, doing things right and attending to detail – i.e. the activities of managing. Thus, organisational catastrophes did not end, corporate governance did not improve and ethical behaviour in organisations remained disappointing. Thirty years later at least one scholar of organisational dynamics remarked that organisations have become over led and under managed (Mintzberg, 2013). The pendulum had swung too far the leadership way!


When psychodynamic splitting takes place, our critical thinking functions and integrative abilities become blunted by emotion driven preferences. We become limited to simplistic and value laden either/or assumptions and frames of reference.

A psychodynamic approach to the understanding of organisational behaviour offers practicing managers, OD consultants and HR professionals a framework to develop a deeper awareness and understanding of the process, nature and function of splitting. In psychodynamics splitting is described as an unconscious ego defensive mechanism against the anxiety generated by a failure to tolerate, absorb and integrate situational diversity and complexity. (Rycroft, 1995). Perceived escalation of situational diversity and complexity may overwhelm one’s coping ability which in turn triggers a premonition that the self (or the group) may be swamped and seriously harmed. Since this type of anxiety is experienced as unbearable it brings the ego defensive mechanism into play: A part of the threatening situation, or a subset of its attributes, is split off and assumes a separate meaning or identity, thus simplifying the situation. This separation relaxes the anxiety brought about by the threatening complexity of the ‘whole’ and rationalises the inability to emotionally and cognitively hold together the diverse features of the situation. Typically, and without fail, since it is integral to splitting, one part is perceived as good, benevolent and valuable, therefore to be retained while the other part is perceived as malevolent and harmful and therefore to be devalued, rejected and ‘expelled’. (Rycroft, 1995).

Many examples in all walks of life illustrate the results of splitting e.g., conservatism versus liberalism; centralisation versus decentralisation; black versus white; us versus them; team player versus individualist; autocratic versus democratic; independence versus interdependence; self-centred versus other-centred; Afrocentrism versus Eurocentrism.

In the case of business organisations, the onset of the 1980’s introduced an increasing diversity and complexity of the external environment in which they needed to function and survive. These changes demanded that organisations respond with concomitant increases in the differentiation and complexity of their structures, systems, cultures, roles and skills to re-align the organisation with what was happening externally (Ashby, 1956). However, the process of re-alignment poses significant adaptive and integrative challenges to management. The status quo is disturbed and the organisation is experienced as new, strange and puzzling. When coping anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed develop, the unconscious ego defence of splitting sets in as an attempt to simplify the situation, relieve the anxiety and regain a sense of control.

Organisational roles that require decision making and action in complex and uncertain situations, are particularly prone to the development of coping anxiety and high levels of apprehension. Splitting of a role into management activities and leadership activities simplifies role demands at the psychodynamic level in that one of the activities, is invariably discounted as ‘bad’ and can thus be rejected, or at least be devalued and put on the back burner, while the other activity is idealised and romanticized as ‘good’ and thus to be embraced as the norm (Krantz,1989). Management was devalued and leadership idealised. Unfortunately, however, the reality of the complex role requirements remains. The split does relieve coping anxiety, but it does not facilitate effective coping with the actions required by increased organisational complexity and diversity. To cope effectively requires what Ashby (1956) calls ‘requisite variety’: the appropriate technical, conceptual and socio - emotional skills and resilience to match diversity and complexity in an integrative and inclusive fashion.

Once the management versus leadership split was propagated: published in academic journals, reported in the popular press, taken up in Training programmes and promoted at conferences and conventions, it assumed an air of legitimacy and became a parachute. Out in the open, it assumed the appearance of a justified and legitimate solution to the effective running of complex organisations and was quickly adopted as a valid frame of reference, or a schema by a critical mass of role players which created a tipping point to a new paradigm (Kuhn, 1996). The romancing of leadership.

One imagined way out of the ‘versus’ dilemma was the proposal to allocate the leadership and management roles to different individuals or groups – even to the extent of claiming that the two roles required different and distinct personal attributes (Zaleznik, 1977). But who would want to be labelled a ‘manager’, or fulfil its devalued and denigrated organisational role?

Very recently Kotter (2016), a prominent author in the field of leadership, emphasised the organisational importance of both management and leadership while at the same time reiterating his view, first put forward two and a half decades ago, that they are quite different regarding the actions, behaviour and processes involved in each role. However, careful inspection of his key leadership actions, namely, establishing direction, aligning people and motivating an inspiring, may be conceptualised as extensions of the management process as originally conceptualised by Fayol (1949), Koontz (1972), and others. Appropriately integrating the actions highlighted by Kotter with the of functions of planning, organising, and motivating, results in a succinct and coherent fusion of leadership and management and a rebirth of the management role. In our view this is not a retrograde step, but rather a correction of a split that should not have been promoted. It amounts to putting Humpty-Dumpty together again.

What we have learnt over a period of 40 years of consulting to management and facilitating leadership development in a wide variety of organisations, during which we have had the privilege of observing and studying behaviour in organisations, dialoguing with, and learning from managers, supervisors and team leaders at all levels and in all functions, is that they do, indeed, manage and lead - and when they achieve success, or fail, it is not possible to fairly and accurately ascribe the result to one or the other of the two roles.

After an innings of 30 odd years, the management versus leadership fallacy needs to be dismissed. But how? More specifically, how do we tone down the prominence of leadership? How do get leaders to understand that the penning of a vision and the framing of a set of values on a wall in the foyer, which are supposed to infuse organisational members with passion and dedication are not sufficient to make results and engagement happen? Upward of 85% of managers and supervisors attending our Training courses, when challenged, can neither state the vision, nor recall the value set of their organisation. Claiming a positive change to an organisation’s performance as the impact of a vision and a set of values in an unqualified way, is naïve. How do we right the boat and reinstate the balancing importance of proper planning, organising and controlling? Should we return to the original primacy of the term ‘management’ and see leadership as a sub - activity within the process of managing, as are the activities of planning, organising and controlling? Should we try to do away with both designations and rather list and define the various activities that people with titles in organisations need to execute? Perhaps we should.

Awareness of the psychodynamics underlying the process of splitting may be the first step in recovering our ability and willingness to re-integrate the two roles. Understanding the origins of a fallacy can assist organisational role players in becoming more accepting of, and comfortable with the reality that organisational complexity is more effectively met with a continuous and kaleidoscopic shifting and balancing of both ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ activities. Maintaining and justifying the split and the romancing of leadership are not helpful to those in the trenches accountable for acceptable organisational, team and individual performance.

For pragmatic reasons and until someone comes up with a suitable integrating concept and term, our take away for those who carry the responsibility for team and organisational performance in one way or the other, is to accept foundational organisational realities, to buckle up and to develop themselves to be capable of ‘management leadership’.

In this regard, we emphasise the following guideline definition: Management leadership is a process involving the activities of planning, organising, leading and controlling to obtain and utilise resources in ways that contribute to the achievement of organisational goals.

In reviewing the management versus leadership fallacy, a nagging thought remains: Who suffered the splitting that started it all: the managers of the day; the consulting academics who coined it and propagated it so zealously – perhaps both?


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