Management vs. Leadership

I always disliked the word “management”. I guess it is because it reminds me of other sleazy words like “manipulation” and “manhandling”. Just today I was reading an article about “system management” that reminded me of a nice explanation about the difference between Leadership and Management I bumped into years ago on Gene Bellinger‘s old Systems Thinking site Mental Model Musings.

Among lots of other very interesting stuff on this site there is a page named Leadership & Management: A Structural Perspective in which he describes the two with a “structure made out of toothpicks and gumdrops”.

I used his explanation a couple of times on slides while dealing with process improvement and change “management” issues and at my huge disappointment no one was as excited with this “discovery” as I was.


Basically, the emphasis in management is on the push of directives, procedures, etc. By doing so, because of the ever present resistance, the whole structure has a tendency to fan out. The focus of management is then, normally, on minimizing risk from the confrontation of management ideas with facts or other ideas. The final consequence is then the necessity for management to put more pressure to keep the whole structure from disintegrating while moving forward and apply micro management to put out fires.


Leadership, on the other side, focuses on pull or creating a need (vacuum) that the team then has to fulfill. The whole “toothpicks and gumdrops” structure tend to “squeeze” together behind the leader. The focus is then, obviously, changed from risk mitigation to finding opportunities, with one of the leader’s role then being to encourage the team to “fan out”, explore and grab any opportunity that might help in the current endeavour. The final consequence is that leaders’ main role is to promote cooperation and self-organization rather than managing confrontation and providing directives for the team to follow.