Management and Leadership

It is easy to think of management and leadership as synonyms. Job roles and descriptions often use the terms interchangeably (especially in software companies where titles like “Team Leader” and “Development Manager” are commonplace and often describe the same role). It is also natural for us to group these words together because those charged with providing leadership invariably need to use management techniques as well.

To me the fundamental difference between leadership and management is that where leadership is about making things happen, management is about ensuring things get done. But what does this mean in practice?

I like to think of management techniques as tools that can enable you to lead. I would consider all of the following to be management techniques:

  • Planning

  • Tracking

  • Risk and Issue Management

  • Estimating

  • Progress Reporting

  • Resourcing

  • Accounting

Whilst management techniques form a foundation for good leadership it is quite possible for you to use them and yet provide no leadership at all. Consider a military analogy. Management is required to ensure that you have the right number of troops in the right places with the right equipment. They need a supply of food and drink. You must ensure that you have the finances to wage a campaign and a legal basis for it. You must asses what the likely outcome will be and if it will be worth the cost. All of this is necessary but it does not constitute leadership, without which no battle has ever been won. Winston Churchill showed great leadership during the second world war but his speeches showed a distinct lack of management terms. He certainly did not say:

“We have established appropriate resource levels and a logistical infrastructure than gives a moderate chance of deriving benefits that will outweigh the costs we are likely to incur”.

Instead his words looked forwards, anticipated a successful outcome and, most importantly, were inspirational:

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

For anyone trying to lead it is important to perform well as a manager whilst at the same time not allowing your management activities to interfere with your leadership. A good example of this from my own experience involved an important project milestone. Several weeks prior to the deadline for this milestone I analysed our progress rate to date and future resource availability. The conclusion from this analysis was that we would be unlikely to achieve this milestone within the time-scales required to meet the deadline. The correct management approach to this scenario would have been to revise the plan (moving the milestone further into the future) and escalate to an appropriate level of management if required (possibly invoking an exception plan). However, from experience, I was aware that allowing a milestone to slip has an important implication for the motivation of your team. You are effectively saying: “You know that thing we had to do by March, well now it’s OK to do it by April”. Consequently the importance of the work in the minds of those carrying it out will be reduced (along with their motivation) because the deadline has become flexible. Therefore I chose to leave the plan as it was, underline the importance of the deadline to the team and look at any ways in which we could speed up our rate of progress. The milestone was delivered on time and I attribute this largely to the increased motivation the team felt by having a fixed deadline. In some ways it was an example of “getting what you expect”. Expect the milestone to slip and it inevitably will. Expect on-time delivery and on-time delivery is what you will get. In this case it was sensible to allow good leadership to override good management.

As I alluded to earlier, where management focusses on how to get things done leadership focusses on what is to be achieved. Therefore it is appropriate that leadership itself is defined by what it tries to achieve. When people experience good leadership they should feel:

  • Motivated

  • Inspired

  • Part of a shared vision

  • Loyal

  • Committed

If you are faced with a potential management/leadership trade-off the above lists can be useful. Are you sacrificing motivation to improve your tracking? Does your estimating process reduce commitment? These are choices that today’s managers/leaders are faced with regularly and normally it is the leadership option that should take priority. This is a new trend and to understand why it has happened it is useful to look at how new approaches to software engineering have developed and what they mean for someone charged with leading a development team.

In his March 2000 essay “Cargo Cult Software Engineering” Steve McConnell talks about the differences between process-oriented and commitment-oriented development styles. He describes how process-oriented organisations achieve success by using a well defined set of repeatable management processes whereas commitment-oriented practices work by hiring the best, creating a high motivation environment and allowing a great deal of individual freedom (with a bare minimum of process). Steve McConnell states his belief that either approach can be effective as long as they are implemented properly.

Times have clearly moved on since that essay was written and this is demonstrated by the tone of Martin Fowler’s 2005 article “The New Methodology”. In it he questions whether traditional software development methodologies are the most effective method for producing software. He argues that several underlying principles of a process-oriented approach (fixed requirements, predictability and the separation of design and construction) are flawed and undesirable. It is evident that (for software development at least) there is an emerging view that process heavy methodologies are no longer the most effective option. In my recent blog “Be Careful What You Wish For” I have also put forward an argument that repeatable processes are a hollow dream.

As organisations adopt new agile development approaches the outmoded concept of process-based development will be replaced by a style that places a much greater emphasis on people. Managers who have relied on a process-heavy management focussed approach will increasingly find it harder to achieve success in this new era. Management techniques will still be useful but they will play second fiddle to the people focussed and forward looking nature of leadership.

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1 comment so far

  1. daviddaly on

    After writing this I found myself unsure of how universally true my points were. This prompted me to post a question on Construx Conversations which generated some interesting replies. Broadly speaking others were in agreement about the differences between management and leadership. However the relative importance of each is definitely up for debate with one person indicating that perhaps it depends on the type of project.


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