Skip to content

Management is not leadership, leadership is not management

I’ve been a leader in one way or another through much of my career, and I’ve also been a manager of teams as well. Management is, in my experience, focused on organizational goals. It’s hierarchical. you need to manage up, but also take care of those who are below you.

Leadership, in contrast, is focused on personal goals. In some cases they may be related to the organization’s goals, and in the workplace there should be significant overlap. But when you are leading, you are walking the fine line between taking people where you want them to go and finding out from them where they want to go. You aren’t commanding anyone and if you aren’t interested in the goal, you probably aren’t leading progress toward it. Leadership is nowhere near as hierarchical as management.

Here are two examples of leadership from my career.

Perl code formatting guidelines

I worked at a consulting company in the early 2000s and we wrote a lot of perl. If you’ve heard of perl, you might know it is often called a “write-only” language because there’s more than one way to express anything. I noticed that we were not standardizing our perl code across projects, and a lot of knowledge wasn’t being shared.

I mentioned this issue to my manager and said I wanted to write some coding standards. While I was a junior engineer, I worked with my manager and perl engineers. I wrote a preliminary draft, then shopped it around and got feedback from other team members. At the end of the day, I had a working document that all teams could live with and that would help us avoid silos of perl coding idioms.

Notice what this involved:

  • seeing a problem
  • working with others to scope it
  • putting a solution together
  • getting feedback

But it didn’t involve:

  • hiring
  • firing
  • giving feedback to anyone
  • coercion

Even though this task had aspects of management, in particular the coordination and communication, it wasn’t management. Instead, it was me picking a goal (“coding guidelines to share knowledge across teams”) and working toward it with others. In other words, leadership.


I have written before about hackfests, but they are one of my favorite things to introduce at a new company (I’m at three and counting).

With a hackfest, I want to foster communication across departments, have fun, and offer a chance to help folks poke their heads up out of their day-to-day.

In each of these companies, I talked about hackfests to both the senior management and other employees to build support. I adjusted specifics about the hackfest (frequency, length, topics, format) based on the feedback. At most of these companies, I was one of the more senior technical employees, but I still built support for the event.

I also scheduled it and did some of the grunt work that goes along with any event, including educating folks on what the point was, emceeing the presentations, following up to get it on the calendar regularly and more. I even occasionally “rang the gong” when my bosses’ presentations ran long.

Fostering leadership

So, should you want to foster leadership within your team and organization? This seems like a no-brainer, but I still find it helpful to examine why.

Leadership, in the form of picking a goal, organizing work around it and delivering it, is critical to scaling an organization for so many reasons:

  • Lets people work together toward a goal without a “manager” around to give them instructions.
  • Is training wheels for management, but can be done by people who are not managers.
  • Can be “tried on” easily. It’s easy for someone to be a leader for one project or aspect of a problem and not others.
  • Pushes decision making closer to people confronting problems.
  • Builds a scalable culture.

You can foster leadership in your team or organization by:

  • Allowing for autonomy and space. It’s easiest to be a leader for a task you care about, but even the most passionate person can’t lead if they are overclocked in the day to day.
  • Encourage communication between teams and employees. Collaboration often offers areas for “bite-sized leadership” opportunities.
  • When someone steps up and takes a leadership role, don’t hand it off and forget. Check in and follow up. Delivery is a key part of leadership, as is accountability.

Just make sure that the projects that are chosen are at the intersection of the desire of the leader and the needs of the organization.