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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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2 Leadership and management: what's the difference?

First, try the following activity to reflect on your existing views on leadership and management.

Activity 1 Your views of leadership and management

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In the box below, write down some words that you would associate with (a) leadership and (b) management. 

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Did you find that you could make a clear distinction between leadership on the one hand and management on the other? Or did you find you wrote similar or overlapping terms? You may have found that the terms you used to describe management were more operational and those to describe leadership got more at the complexity and messiness of organisations and people.

Leadership is often characterised as contemporary, alluring and dynamic, as distinct from the predictability of management techniques. This is unfair, as management can often be innovative, whereas leadership can be a code word for the very old-fashioned idea of ‘defer to the person in charge’. That said, it is our case that leadership does indeed offer something distinctive to management. If management seeks to make work more predictable and efficient, leadership disrupts, bringing out new issues and ideas.

This course’s position on leadership and management

As a way of differentiating between management and leadership, this course adopts a similar position to that offered by leadership scholar Keith Grint (2005). Grint approaches management and leadership from the perspective of problems rather than the personal qualities of practitioners. He sees these concepts in terms of the issues and challenges faced by organisations, rather than the personal qualities of employees. This is an important shift in thinking because it suggests that a particular issue exists because people think and practise the issue into being, not because the issue really exists like that in the first place.

Here is an example. A new chief executive is appointed to a charity that is facing falling private donations and as a result it is becoming more reliant on alternative sources of income, specifically government grants and large sponsorship or partnership deals with businesses. So what is the problem here? A managerial way of thinking about the problem might focus on the processes and systems of fundraising: database management, methods of collecting money and marketing channels. A leadership approach might ask some more fundamental questions about the meaning of the organisation – perhaps people are giving less because the organisation’s purpose is not as important anymore?

For Grint, management ‘tames’ problems through applying technical thinking, making problems less intimidating, easier to think about and to tackle. It involves working with systems, policies, guidelines and rules to make life more manageable (for want of a better word).

Leadership, in contrast, makes problems more ‘wicked’. It approaches a problem that may at first glance seem relatively straightforward but recast that problem as something much more fundamental. A problem with falling donations, for example, could be one indication amongst others, of an organisation that needs to rethink its purpose. Leadership tends to approach problems as if they are complex and difficult, requiring the sustained efforts of a diverse group of people. Leadership, then, can be thought of as a disruptive force within organisations, something that asks the awkward questions and leads others into fresh thinking that was previously off-limits. It is also something that confronts the status quo, seeking conflictual, if participative debate and discussion about what matters for organisations and the people they serve.

Please watch the following video, where Chair and founding Director of the OU’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, Professor Siv Vangen, discusses what leadership can offer voluntary organisations.

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Siv flags up in the video the proposition that leadership is best thought of as linked to major, wicked problems, and that voluntary organisations are accustomed to such problems. Key in facing such problems, Siv states, is approaching leadership as a practice that is shared between people in organisations and across organisations. Thinking of leadership in this way – rather than being all about the characteristics of individual leaders – is something that we will develop throughout the course.

In reality, organisations need a mix of leadership and management. They also need professionals, experts in their field, to execute strategy and to innovate. Finally, they all need good administrative systems that help, rather than hinder, progress. Having worked with the conceptualisation of leadership and management, the course now turns to consider how you might differentiate between the two in practice.