How to beat disruption by separating leadership and management

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Leadership and management – two concepts, two different paths.

Dr MATHEW DONALD explains the difference between leadership and management, and how recognising it may save your organisation from being disrupted.

Fuelled by globalisation, social media and the internet, the age of disruption has emerged as one full of fast-paced change, filled with great uncertainty and risk. The interconnectivity of business today means that changes from trade wars, Brexit, tariffs or a vast array of new technology have immediate effect all over. Disruption emerges with daily regularity, be that from social media or the internet, often appearing unfiltered and unverified. Organisational change, speed and complexity may now have increased to such levels that we should not expect leaders to be all-knowledgeable anymore.

The unpredictability of disruption may make it impossible for anyone, let alone leaders, to have full knowledge of any change before it emerges. The lack of control in this new future may cause tensions in organisations, as the expectations and demands of investors, staff and customers will not likely change. Recent research indicates that organisational change success or failure is linked to at least seven interrelated factors of leadership and management rather than those related to staff. As such, it is clear that there is no single panacea to resolving the disruption issues. More than one approach is likely to be required if organisations are to succeed in disruption.

Many organisational roles may require both leadership and management elements, yet they are clearly different functions. Leadership in the organisational context is responsible for setting strategy and goals, thereafter setting out to influence the organisation towards those directions. Management is concerned with planning, execution, control and improvement. Many organisational roles often require a combination of leadership influence and management control in order to achieve their business targets. In this new age of faster and unpredictable disruption, the leadership and management functions may need to refocus and even separately specialise.

Why do leaders need to operate differently?

Leadership is based influence that arises from trust, where staff will likely follow their leaders if they trust that directions and decisions made are in their best interests. Trust is not guaranteed nor a right, as it takes time to emerge based on past promises, actions and delivery. The new age may be problematic for trust, where leaders will likely reverse decisions regularly based on new emerging information or scenarios. Responsiveness and adaptability may be key skills for leaders to cope with disruption, yet too many sudden changes in direction may deliver a loss in confidence for staff and customers alike. Once trust is lost, it may be almost impossible for important leadership messages and explanations to be heard, let alone understood and be believed. Staff engagement is important to change as it provides feedback with additional ideas, when trust is lost that valuable process may be lost.

It may no longer be possible to position and explain changes one at a time – there will simply be too many leading to tired and cynical staff. To enhance trust, it may be better for leaders to explain the broader new age, including its context of great speed, uncertainty and risks. The broader context of the environment may help staff and customers understand why leadership directions may appear so variable in this new age. This new approach will require leaders with confidence to admit their frailties, whilst seeking closer and more partnering-style relations with customers and staff, where new ways of problem solving may arise out of the increased sharing of ideas and risks.

So why is management a different function?

It may no longer be possible to have the relatively stable written procedures, processes and governance that were so common in the past. The sheer quantity and pace of change in disruption may prevent the organisational ability to keep up and rewrite everything as it changes. Management is advised that new operating models, less dependent upon structure, will be best replaced with those based on ethics, creativity and adaptability. Management will also likely need to hire, train and retain staff with skills of creativity, innovation and adaptability if they are to survive across the forecast extended successive change ahead.

As there may simply be too much change ahead it may no longer be reasonable to expect leadership and management activities to be performed in a single role. Perhaps one way for an organisation to cope with so much change will be for leadership and management to separate into more specialised roles, thereby allowing each to focus and learn their respective new skills without being overburdened by change.

Dr Mathew Donald is a leadership, management and organisational change specialist. He’s also the author of Leading and managing change in the age of disruption and artificial intelligence. For more information, visit


Image: Will Francis via

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