Management Skills and Leadership Skills

Mentoring and executive coaching can particularly focus on the underlying character traits which make managers and leaders more effective.

Few people would like to be a manager with no leadership ability, and few would like to be a leader who can’t manage. Yet both in academia and on the front lines of business, it is popular to distinguish the underlying skills and character traits associated with each as if they were altogether distinct. This categorization is reflected in individual development plans, with managers attending project management courses and prospective future directors having fun on leadership development courses. I myself found the latter a real treat, with zany games and creative thinking exercises and tough fictional business scenarios to work through. But always there lingered a suspicion that whole tracts of crucial character development remained untouched by even the best (and certainly most fun) so-called ‘leadership courses’.

Here’s one look at the ways in which I believe the popular distinction mixes insight with confusion to generate a plausible but misleading picture of the world, followed by a coaching perspective on the unifying features underlying both management skills and leadership skills. This represents my own view of the conceptual territory. However, as I stress in the last section on evidence for this view, my perspective is also well informed by significant work in psychology, particularly that of the renowned US psychologist Carl Rogers — arguably the most influential researcher and clinician in the field since Freud.

In keeping with my underlying belief that you are the best expert on your own life and business, your coaching may focus on completely different areas, or it may address these areas in different ways — as you see fit.

Management Skills vs. Leadership Skills: The Management Side

A popular view is that managers work to optimize the deployment of resources like people, time and materials within a set of constraints, or boundary conditions, like the cost of labour or materials, the time and cash available, or an empirically measured function such as that relating price and demand. Managers work, according to a popular view, within a structure of relative priorities set by leaders, not concerning themselves with whatever justifications underpin those priorities.

All too often, however, this view neglects the creative aspects of (better) management, the listening and empathic skills of (better) management, and other personal character traits of someone who can sustainably deliver (better) management: the caricature of a manager as devoid of vision and focused entirely on meeting the numbers, whatever numbers they may be, is plausible but wrong.

Management Skills vs. Leadership Skills: The Leadership Side

A popular view is that leaders deliver vision and direction, inspiration and motivation. The leader exists to set direction and to create some structure of relative priorities between high-level constraints which will then be the primary parameters of interest to the manager. Leaders, according to this view, need not concern themselves with the implementational details of what it might take to deliver results within the priorities they have set out — that’s why they have managers.

All too often, however, this view neglects the (better) leader’s ability to recognize and accept the realities on the ground, the (better) leader’ ability to appreciate the challenges for managers of working to their priorities, and other personal character traits of someone who can sustainably lead, inspire and motivate: the caricature of a leader as someone who simply tells other people what to do, unable to delegate and devoid of business empathy or the ability to ‘reality check’, is plausible but wrong.

A Coaching and Mentoring Perspective on Management Skills vs. Leadership Skills: What’s Really Important?

From a coaching and mentoring perspective, both management skills and leadership skills rest upon human character. Leading and managing are performed by real human beings, and my own perspective is that some of the most important character traits underpinning good management and good leadership are exactly those described on the Executive Coaching front page:

  • Listening to and understanding the self and others,
  • Accepting and valuing what is, and
  • Being honest and transparent to self and others

These character traits suggest certain attitudes and behavioural tendencies which I believe increase the effectiveness of other management skills and leadership skills significantly:

  • Expressing one’s own reactions and motivations openly and honestly and listening to others when they do the same
  • Expressing feedback to others sensitively and empathically and listening to feedback offered by others
  • Relying on one’s own judgement and resources and respecting others when they do the same
  • Accepting the creative, ‘wild side’ resources within ourselves and accepting them in others
  • Fostering the development and autonomy of others every bit as much as our own

My approach to executive coaching is built around these very traits, attitudes and behaviours: I believe that paying attention to the areas outlined on the front Executive Coaching page promotes not just better management and leadership, but also better coaching.

Evidence for This View of Management and Leadership

These suggestions are not simply made up, and they do not represent mere uninformed personal opinion; rather, they are based on the work of the renowned US pioneer of psychology Dr Carl Rogers. Empirical studies underscore the central importance in human relations of Rogers’s three ‘core conditions’ of acceptance, authenticity and empathic understanding — and Rogers himself did significant work on the psychology of management and administration, some of which is summarised in his 1978 book On Personal Power.

Combining Rogers’s psychological theory with empirical evidence in the field, as well as my own observations of management and leadership at widely varying levels of the administrative hierarchy, leads me to take seriously the ideas outlined here as worthwhile starting points for structuring my understanding of the management skills vs. leadership skills debate.

This article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser on .

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