Leadership vs. Management

Man at iPad

Within nonprofit organizations, the divisions between management and leadership are sometimes difficult to decipher. Staff roles in nonprofits can include many levels of management such as program managers, operations managers, associate directors and executive directors, among various other positions. Nonprofits have the added complexity of being led by boards of directors – the highest governance team of the organization, empowered with certain management roles.

For nonprofit organizations, the dynamic between the board of directors and the executive director creates a complex web of interactions whereby the board supervises the executive director at the same time that the executive director manages the board. Defining and delineating the roles of manager and leader are key steps toward creating healthy organizational governance.

So, are managers necessarily leaders? And are leaders necessarily managers? The short answer is “not necessarily.” They may be one and the same. They may be different people. It all depends.

As we consider the theory of adaptive leadership, it becomes clear that anyone associated with a nonprofit organization may be an organizational leader. These are the people who use either formal or informal authority to influence the future of the organization, to promote change, and to generate a consensus for impacting the community in positive ways. Nonprofit leaders may include program managers who lead from the middle or board members who lead from the top. Nonprofit leaders may also include volunteers who are passionate about the organization or the future of the community.

An organizational manager, on the other hand, relies on formal authority to make decisions that are required for organizational sustainability. These decisions often revolve around day-to-day operations, processes and policies and involve hard-skills related to programming, staffing or scheduling. Managers may include staff or board members who focus on technical skills that create the foundation upon which leaders can operate. Managers may also, often, rely on their leadership skills in order to carry out their management responsibilities.

Nonprofit organizations require both effective managers and effective leaders in order to thrive over the long-term. Management and leadership are intrinsically intertwined and no absolute distinction exists between these two aspects of organizational oversight and impact.

A few ways to think about the distinction between managers and leaders are outlined below. Clearly, managers and leaders share some of the same attributes. And most managers and leaders fall on a continuum, incorporating aspects of both leadership and management.

Formal authorityInformal authority
Manage things, processes and productsLead people and ideas
“Do things right”“Do the right things”
Focus on how things get doneFocus on what things mean to other people
Focus on tasks and thingsFocus on ideas
Use hard skills: planning, policy making, scheduling, staffingUse soft skills: communication, motivation, change management, team building
Seek stability (comfortable with order)Seek change (comfortable with disorder)
Focus on the day-to-day work that leads to achieving the vision (“the trees”)Focus on the vision that impacts the day-to-day work (“the forest”)