Leading in Management: The Skills and Concepts Today’s Managers Need to Stay Relevant

For companies to stay relevant, they need effective managers who can also lead agilely through change.

Discover the management and leadership skills and concepts that can help managers navigate this new normal.

You’ve heard it before: the world of work is changing – a fact which the pandemic has only accelerated. From remote and hybrid working to the shift from designing processes for efficiency to designing for resilience, a number of notable workforce changes are here to stay.

On top of that, the boundaries have blurred between home and work, soft and hard skills, and leadership and management. Now, more than ever before, leaders must hone their day-to-day management skills and managers are being called to lead in the face of unprecedented transformation.

But what does it mean to lead in a management role

In this article, we will look at:

  1. The difference between leadership and management
  2. The four essential functions of management
  3. The key leadership skills and concepts managers need to thrive in the next normal

The difference between leadership and management

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, it’s important to touch on the fundamental differences between leadership and management. Because while both are critical to the success of an organization, they are not one in the same. Effective managers and leaders know how to successfully cycle between the two roles.

At the core, management is rooted in the processes and practicalities of meeting company objectives, goals, and targets.

While leadership is concerned with the bigger picture, forward-looking aspects of an organization- those intangible qualities like inspiration and vision that are harder to quantify and are what motivate people to keep working hard and striving towards a shared goal.

Imagine you are setting out to climb Mount Everest. Managers would be the sherpas in charge of managing the packs, setting up camp, and taking care of the day-to-day needs of the climbers as they ascend the mountain.

Meanwhile, leaders are the mountain guides charting the best journey up, monitoring the weather, and generally keeping the whole expedition moving at the right pace and in the right direction. 

The difference between leadership and management can also be defined through the lens of change management, an essential aspect of any organization. 

In that case:

Leadership describes the tools people use to create a new future. Leaders guide people from the current state to a new idea or change state. They, quite simply, focus on “change” activities.

Management then describes the tools people use to ensure that the current process or structure delivers expected products. Managers focus on execution or “compliance” activities.

This underscores the call for leadership we are seeing today. 

As the author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said in a recent speech, “When the world changes, management always fails.” 

While the statement may be a touch hyperbolic, it gets at an important point.

One survey showed that approximately 65% of sales leaders said they believe that the speed of change has increased over the past few years, and 85% believe that adopting agile working methods will be critical for success in the coming years.

Given that rapid change is the new norm, organizations need more than just strong managers who are focused on efficiency and productivity. They need managers to also act as leaders who can help navigate and find solutions to the problems of tomorrow.

Examining the basic functions of management is a good starting point to understanding where leadership fits in.

difference leadership and management

The four functions of management

In the early 1900s, French mining engineer and author Henri Fayol identified five functions of management. These have been condensed down to four over time, but they are still widely considered the foundational principles of management roles today. 

These functions are:

1. Planning

Managers set organizational goals and find the best course of action to achieve them.

According to Fayol, a good plan includes: 

    • the desired result (i.e. the goal), 
    • the actions required to meet that goal,
    • the stages (i.e. the sequence and timeline for the actions), 
    • and the methods (i.e. specifying the exact way the different steps or stages will be performed).

    2. Organizing

Managers allocate the internal and external resources needed to achieve the desired result and plan, including delegating tasks to the right staff members and determining who is accountable for what.

In this function, managers may need to consult different departments like Human Resources and Finance to ensure all of the required elements are in place.

3. Leading

After the first two functions of management are under control, a manager’s focus should turn to the people in their charge. Here is where interpersonal skills like strong communication, empathy, and active listening are essential.

As opposed to giving orders or micro-managing, effective managers find their own unique leadership style(s) that enables them to inspire and encourage their team members to stay on track and perform to the best of their abilities.

4. Controlling

Just because a plan is set and a team is working towards it doesn’t mean a manager’s work is done. Managers also need to monitor progress and make course corrections if necessary, be those staff or budget-related.

For example, if a manager sees that the project is running over budget, they will need to evaluate if the costs are justified, and if so, fundraise to cover the extra expenses. Giving constructive feedback to team members is also a critical part of this function.

Focusing on the leadership function of management can help a business confront challenges and turn them into opportunities. It gives organizations the surefooted direction needed to plot a profitable, productive path through the evolving world of work.

It also helps them prepare the workforce of the future – an urgent need as 69% of millennials report a lack of leadership development in their organizations.

In order for managers to develop leadership acumen, they should focus on several leadership qualities that stand out as drivers of success.

Three critical leadership skills every manager needs

1. Self-awareness

Leadership begins and ends with self-awareness. You might find yourself wondering:

What do I believe in? 
What are my core values? 
What is my risk tolerance? 
How do I show up in relationships with others? 
How am I perceived by others?

These are important questions and the answers define your daily leadership choices. The answers show up in how you behave, and the impact ripples out as people watch you.

Research shows that self-awareness is even linked to more satisfied employees. However, according to Tara Well, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, “Social scientists have discovered that people often grossly overestimate their level of self-awareness.” 

Cultivating self-awareness starts with becoming mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, whether that’s through keeping a journal or starting a meditation practice. Seeking honest feedback from your peers and friends is another effective way to gain clarity on your behaviors and efficacy as a leader.

2. Effective communication

Communication skills are critical for anyone in any position of authority within an organization. In fact, research shows that leaders spend 75-80% of their working hours communicating.

And that communication must span many channels – from Zoom, email, social media, Slack, you name it –  and flow in different directions – upwards to superiors and downwards to team members. 

When presenting a new idea to your team or trying to generate buy-in for a new program, communication plays a major role in setting new norms. Honest, timely information that doesn’t sugar-coat reality or leave communication voids is key.

Great communicators spend a good deal of their time actively listening to those around them and taking their time to think through a response that is tactful and opens up a sense of dialogue.

Just think of the difference between “Get this to me by Friday.” and “Do you think you could get me this by Friday?” Honing your non-verbal cues also goes a long way, as 65% of conversations between two people will be made up of body language cues alone. 

3. Coaching and feedback

​​Employee satisfaction is vital to meeting business goals, yet it has been shown that 79% of employees quit due to a lack of appreciation. That highlights the importance of providing constructive and positive feedback. Leaders must be teachers who notice the need for improvement and encouragement. 

Valid feedback is relevant to behavior and situations that can be changed. And, to be helpful, course-correcting conversations or expressions of praise or appreciation need to be timely and tailored to how the recipient can best receive the comments.

It’s about being a coach rather than a commander, training your workforce with the tools they need to drive their own performance.

For instance, instead of telling a team member how to improve, sit down with them, review some of their key accounts, and problem solve collaboratively. This, in turn, strengthens the relationship and creates a sense of trust, which, it turns out, is the strongest indicator of employee engagement.

Leading in different contexts

No organization is the same; each and every one has its quirks. Just as a teacher would never expect to teach one child the same as they would teach a large class of high school students, leadership is not one-size-fits-all.

In other words, the who, what, and when of a circumstance influence how you lead.

One concept of leadership, introduced by management consultant Dr. Drea Zigarmi, identifies five different leadership contexts that leaders need to be aware of and respond to accordingly.

leading in management 2

The five leadership contexts

1. Self context

As we discussed above, leadership starts with self-awareness. How a leader conducts and directs themselves toward an objective says a lot about their ability to lead others.

For example, the way a leader manages their time or commits to a new company policy will serve as an example to others within an organization.

The self-context also recognizes that leaders are found at every level within an organization, which is why it’s important to develop creativity, confidence, and leadership skills within every individual as a starting point to reaching larger goals. 

2. One-to-one context

From performance reviews to casual daily check-ins, the one-to-one context is concerned with how a leader coaches one individual team member. It’s about how to encourage and give constructive feedback so that person can reach their highest potential.

Since each person is different, a leader may need to adapt their leadership style slightly in order to help that individual succeed.

3. Team context

Zooming out further, the team context is – you guessed it – focused on the needs and motivations of the wider team. Here are where social dynamics come into play and conflicts may need to be resolved – meaning that this is the point where a leader may need to be more assertive and decisive as team members look to them for guidance.

In a team context, leaders need to assess how to best organize and align a team based on individual team members’ skills in order to achieve a common goal.

4. Organizational context

Organizational leadership is more complex and requires a higher degree of strategic thinking. It’s less caught up in day-to-day team dynamics and individual goals and more focused on the overarching structure and direction of the organization.

Executive leaders need to adopt a long-term view and have the wherewithal to make big decisions in the face of adversity. Here’s where a company’s vision, mission, values, and principles are key. Uniting an organization under a shared vision and purpose while being able to read performance and trend indicators is the leader’s role here.

5. Alliance context

The final context goes beyond a single organization to look at what happens when two different organizations – or two units within the same organization – come together to work on a project or initiative.

For example, when the Marketing team and Customer Service team partner to work on a new campaign, or when a soda company teams up with an event venue to promote its products.

Leadership in this context requires a greater understanding of how to establish clear roles and chains of accountability as well as how to collaborate effectively to ensure that the objectives of each organization are satisfied.

Leaders, therefore, have a responsibility to help establish and own the conditions of their context. They fix what they can and otherwise adjust the self, individual, team, or organization to make the best of the situation.


The differences between leadership and management and the functions of management are well defined and important to understand. However, today, it is increasingly important to know how to cycle between the two – and that means managers must cultivate their leadership skills.

It’s not enough for a leader to direct or simply tell teams what to do. Leaders must cultivate self-awareness, be effective communicators, and know how to coach and give feedback to team members. They must also recognize that leadership varies by context and understand how to respond to what each context and moment calls for. 

To stay agile and navigate an uncertain business landscape, investing in leadership development will be key for organizations that want to stay relevant in the future.

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