Leadership vs. Management: Is There a Difference?


In the world today, rapidly changing political and social climates can present an array of challenges for public safety agencies. That’s why you need exceptional leaders to help navigate through it all. But does being a good manager automatically make you a good leader? If not, how does someone put into a managerial position become a leader?

Public safety personnel need to have leadership skills that help them connect with the different demographics in their community while also staying dedicated to serving and protecting the public. The success of an agency is often dependent on the effectiveness of its leaders. While the role of a public safety official may not change, the methods they use to serve and protect certainly do. Leaders in the public safety sector need to understand the variations between leading and managing in an ever-shifting world so as to better guide their teams and influence others to follow.

To better understand the differentiation between leading and managing, we need to first define what each term means. Leadership can be described as the action of leading a group of people or an organization toward a common goal, whereas management means the process of dealing with or controlling things or people, usually with an emphasis on things rather than people. Leaders often have some common attributes, such as the ability to inspire others to share their vision, motivating them to act on that vision and then encouraging and assisting them in overcoming obstacles while in pursuit of that vision. On the other hand, management tends to be more about planning, organizing and coordinating resources to reach the organization’s specific goals.

As a public safety professional, you have probably been in a position where you had to work on a team, giving you firsthand experience with what it’s like to be led or, more likely, what it’s like to be managed. Although you may find yourself drawn to someone who exhibits more leadership qualities rather than just managerial ones, it doesn’t mean management is always bad or leadership is always good; there can be great managers and bad leaders, and vice versa. Being called a leader doesn’t always mean you’re on the right path, it just means you are able to attract followers who believe in your cause. In the same vein, there are also managers that focus so much on processes and procedures that their methods can be deflating to employees. The key is not to choose one or the other as more important – a truly great agency actually needs a combination of both.

Let’s say you have been thrown into a management position where you quickly realize loyalty cannot be bought; this is especially true in the public safety setting where you’re often asking your employees to follow you down a dangerous or difficult path. Possessing more of a leadership mindset tends to get you focused on emotion and touching the hearts and minds of those around you, while a management mindset makes you aware of the rules and processes in order to carry out your agency’s goals to fruition. As a leader, you can focus on visions and strategies for your team to accomplish the goals, but you need a manager’s mindset in order to make those goals happen. However, sometimes the manager mindset can cause you to worry too much about getting things done and getting them done quickly, and you can end up overlooking how things are being accomplished. The distinction between leadership and management can be summed up by a quote from author and leadership guru Peter Drucker, “You are so concerned that you are doing things right that you are often failing to do the right things.”

Leadership and management are two separate skill sets but it is possible for the same person to possess both skill sets. Both traits are important, such as knowing how to focus on a task like upholding the law while also inspiring people to move forward as a community, especially after a tragedy. You need to understand how to manage the agency, but also how to take the personal traits and attributes of the people in your department, community and personnel, and match them to your agency’s goals in order to get the right people to the right seats at the right time. A manager is tasked with thinking about the goals of the organization, the hard numbers and how to achieve them, while the leader mindset then shifts to the journey of how to get to those goals.

The secret to success lies in knowing when to exhibit leadership and when to manage. Management is too often understood in a limited way: planning, controlling, budgeting and forecasting. People put into management positions are taught to manage their team, but seldom taught how to lead them. In today’s workforce, the old idea of only being taught how to assign work to subordinates, evaluate that work and then counsel on performance issues isn’t going to cut it anymore. Taking responsibility for a team and its success is no small task, but focusing on building trust, being empathetic and getting them to care about your agency’s mission is not only the most effective way to lead a team, but also the most responsible way to run an agency.

Understanding the difference between leadership and management can help you and your team see why a combination of both is ideal. The mindset of management versus leadership needs to change to management and leadership. The key is balance. Once administrators understand the difference, the agency can transition from “good enough” to truly great.