Holding a position of leadership in the military for almost twenty-five years was a privilege. From my first day as a 23-year-old Lieutenant leading 40 soliders in South Korea to a Lieutenant Colonel leading an organization of over 600 soldiers in the Middle East, the “leadership lab” provided by the military was a game changer. After all, leadership in the military is a strategic advantage.

Leadership, however, isn’t the only strategic advantage.

Both leadership and management play key roles in the military – just as they do in organizations all over the world.

I was recently listening to a Franklin Covey podcast where Stephen M.R. Covey stated,“Millennials don’t want to be managed. They want to be led, inspired, and trusted.” This got me thinking because it completely contradicts Abraham Zaleznik’s theory from his HBR Classic, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” where he states, “Leadership is really managing work that other people do.”

Confusion justified? 

Covey validates the impact of leadership while Zaleznik emphasizes the management of work, not people.

Based on what I know and my experience in leadership roles, I’d say they’re both correct.

Here’s the difference: leadership must focus on people while management focuses on systems. Said a different way: you lead people and manage systems.

In today’s 21st-century workforce, I hear business leaders and executives using these words interchangeably, overlooking the critical distinctions. But if they aren’t the same, what are the differences? Are both needed? How do you know when to lead and when to manage?

Livesay’s Lesson

I am a father of three sons. Several years ago, when my oldest son, Caleb, was becoming a teenager, Bob Livesay taught us an amazing leadership lesson. He told us, “In life, we must love people and use things – not the other way around.”

He was reminding me and my now-19-year-old son that love is the most powerful leadership tool. To effectively lead, we need to focus on people’s hearts, not the task or job at hand. To lead, we first have to love. Since that day, this concept has been part of my leadership philosophy and has served me well when determining to use leadership or management.

Let’s look at the differences.


Noun. An act or instance of leading, guidance, and direction.

The Army defines leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”

A study from Gallup confirms “employees who are engaged are more likely to stay with their organization, reducing overall turnover and the costs associated with it.” Another statistic from the study found “only 19% of employees say they receive feedback from leaders” and “only 17% of the feedback is meaningful.”

Takeaway: Engaged leaders can make a difference. They must learn to understand their follower’s behaviors, tendencies, and passions; factors that can’t be managed. Leadership that directs, guides, and motivates is a competitive advantage in today’s 21st-century workplace.


Noun. The act or manner of managing; handling, direction, or control.

John Kotter’s HBR article states, “Management is a set of well-known processes, like planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well.” Effective management is needed for organizations to carry out the day to day operations. To do the routine things routinely. The processes of management are like the stabilizing engines of a ship in stormy weather. They provide stability, steadiness, and reliability to keep the ship on course.

Takeaway: Management systems are important and needed for organizations to reach their goals regarding systems, careers, or leader development programs. If you manage people, however, you won’t have the influence required to achieve organizational goals. When management systems are operating properly they give leadership the ability to drive the organization into the future.

Bringing it all together

  • How does an organization know when to utilize leadership or management?
  • How can an organization focus on the future while operating successfully in the present?
  • Why should your organization invest in leadership of people and management of systems?

Leadership is about people and understanding human behavior while management is about systems and processes. Executives must lead organizations while systems enable these same organizations to operate on a day-to-day basis. If your organization needs to run efficiently, precisely, and effectively – apply management. If you desire a vision for the future, empowerment, development, and growth – apply leadership.

Even in today’s 21st-century workforce, Livesay’s lesson still holds true. If organizations want to tap into their greatest asset (their people), then leadership and management must be understood and employed in their proper context.

Lead people. Manage systems.