Compassionate leadership: If we all ‘lead,’ we don’t need ‘managers’ anymore

There are significant differences between leadership and management

In our contemporary world both leadership and management may be required and co-exist in different situations, but the identification and understanding of their distinguishing features is important if we want to use both of them effectively and eventually think about shifting the emphasis towards managers who are real leaders too.

Having been in diverse leadership and/or management positions in educational institutions and schools, business and consulting firms, military/public service organizations, media and communication practices, as well as leisure/sports clubs and civic movements over the last 20 years, I’ve reflected on the difference between leadership and management from many different angles. I’m always coming back to the conclusion that the concepts of leadership and management are not as related as the popular interchangeable use of the terms might suggest.

The ultimate market-participating organizational SMART goals versus dreams and visions

Like a path is leading to a different place, or a sheep can be led into a stable, human leadership can be defined as leading something or somebody towards a certain direction. It is said that leadership requires meaning; meaning that is represented and communicated through goals. Although managerial and leadership goals should always be believed to be achievable, the type of goal formation process and quality of goals themselves involved in leadership and management differs significantly [1].

A leader typically is self-guided by intuition and his intimate moral understanding, while a manager is hired by the board of directors pursuing shareholders interest for securing maximized return on their investments. In case of doubt or conflict, the financial interests always have to succeed over other values in a for-profit organization. Manager’s success is measured by how accurately they achieve the business goals. The more long-term, the less predictable the attainment of goals becomes. Leadership tolerates not directly measurable long-term results [1]. Managers, in contrast, for above reasons preferably are to set short-term goals. To ensure that goals are as clear and realistic as possible, so-called SMART goals are commonly used in the corporate world, which ought to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Leaders may not only not have SMART goals, but even allow more vague dreams and visions that are often requiring significant imagination.

There is a difference between the concept of power based on formal authority and influence through inspiration

One broad approach is to define leadership as the interpersonal dimension of management that comprises the “ability to inspire confidence and support among the people who are needed to achieve organizational goals” ([2], p. 5). Frequently leadership gets confused with authority, seeing power as being based on formal roles. The formal assignments of a manager or officer let people notice legitimacy and comply with instructions because of fear of negative consequences in case of non-compliance [3]. When saying that leadership requires power, it is, however, not this authoritarian capability of incurring costs (for example in the form of punishment) for the people who refuse to obey [1]. Authoritarian regimes as examples of tight leadership in the form of control and prescription are generating poor results for the people. Instead, it is the ability to inspire for a voluntary fellowship by unforceful means that is resulting in individual prosperity, well-being, and peace through personal self-determination and fulfillment. Real leadership allows people self-leadership.

Leadership goes beyond the leadership aspects practiced in business administration

When the sum of the leadership structures followed by society is called culture [1], then the sum of management structures of market-participating organizations can be seen as the economy. Leaders create culture through the leadership structures they leave behind ([1], p. 11), while managers build administrations through the organizational patterns they establish. This thinking is in line with the terminology used in managerial education, where the top courses for aspiring or acting executive officers award for the title of the Master of Business Administration. Increasing parts of businesses consist of technology and digital resources, whereas human aspects tend to be further pushed into the background. Emotional and organic elements are taken out from the management of resources in favor of optimal planning accuracy. Again, although there may (but doesn’t have to) be some deal of leadership involved as well in steering a business, a real leader would never be reduced to be an administrator in that sense.

The irrelevance of leadership in the management of expectations

As Rudy Giuliani once put it, leaders first figure out what’s right, and then explain it to people, as opposed to first having people explain it and then just saying what they want to hear ([2], p.3). Indeed, managers tend to behave in a manner more or less in line with the management style endorsed within their country, industry or organization [4]. Firms choose new executives whose values are consistent with their own. If an executive is not filling the role as expected, he will be replaced with somebody who adheres more closely to expectations. From that perspective it is essential to have a rider, to use this metaphor, who holds the reins of a horse put before a cart, but any other rider who follows the relatively simple rules how to guide a horse and carriage can carry them as well. You can even let a child play the carter. It can be observed that the horse’s, respectively the organization’s personality, to come back to the organizational context, is actually more important than the “leader” himself [2].

Leaders emerge when there is an urge for change or the need to resolve a crisis or conflict

Leadership creates change, often of dramatic dimensions, such as when completely new market dynamics are developed, societal perceptions are shifted, or more diverse cultures emerge. Management on the other hand often is concerned about maintaining predictability and order [2]. Let’s think about why and how changes are managed in organizations. A big part of organizational administration deals with tracking changes to protect the status quo of power balances and interests of stakeholders and resources that contribute most to the profitable business. Such times of contentedness and stability are not calling for leaders whose strength is to move towards widening the range of beneficiaries. It is the time of crisis, in which leaders emerge. Managers monitor operational excellence of their subordinates typically in periods of economic strain. Charisma arises when there are heightened levels of distress among an increasing number of people that can be of not only financial but also psychological nature, constituting an individual and collective crisis of meaning that demands answers. If the problem is sought to be solved by somebody else, the ground is fertile for people to follow a leader who convincingly directs toward a comforting solution [3]. It has to be carefully evaluated whether these promises are meaningful and serving the common good, or whether there is an overemphasis on leader-reliance for whatever reason. Leaders are also required in situations of conflict. Conflict as the opposite of leadership is characterized by the absence of a functioning leader-follower relationship, typically because of disagreements related to a common course of action [1].

There is little leadership required and even possible in corporations

Following the argumentation so far, it is conceivable to suggest, assuming a bit a black and white perspective, that in organizations, at ordinary times there is little leadership required and even possible. Instead, what is required is a disciplined management that administers an organization to stay on track without visioning any significant change that would require leadership. Abraham Maslow regarded leaders as self-actualizing individuals who are self-determined, independent of culture, and following their inner guidance to help their fellow humans. For a leader of such qualities a narrow corporate environment likely would be unsatisfying at least and possibly over longer or sooner and would also be ethically conflicting. Executives of big corporations have contributed to the mistrust in corporate ethics due to their perceived focus on self-promotion and excessive greed. What seems to be required is more compassionate leadership in the service of others respectively in the view of the broader society and humanity beyond an institutional context [5].

The difference between moral, ethics, and professionalism

Ninety-nine percent of the global wealth is controlled by the top one percent of richest people. The issue is that this causes, for example, the daily death of tens of thousands of innocent children who are left without the necessary means to survive, such as food or health care. Unfortunately, as long as it is a tolerated practice that the already highly concentrated wealth is invested almost exclusively in opportunities that further accentuate this income and wealth inequality, there is little hope that compassionate (moral) and ethical leadership will prevail. Corporate social responsibility struggles to demonstrate a positive impact on the single measure bottom-line of financial profit generation, why it remains not much more than an afterthought. On the one hand, public relations and marketing communications of organizations increasingly use language that includes terms like ‘sharing,’ ‘love,’ ‘community,’ and ‘better world for all,’ to brand themselves socially towards consumers who are willing to pay a premium for such labels. This is true even for industries such as tobacco and arms. On the other hand, corporate ethics training is poised to be mere professional instruction on how to operate within legal constraints without jeopardizing business performance. This may be diligent management to serve capital, but not leadership to improve the human condition.

Shaping the role of genuinely great managerial leadership

Again, in all kinds of organizational settings, there may be a necessary mix of administrative and leadership qualities at work, suggesting a combined role of a ‘managerial leader’ [2].

Maybe the understanding of managerial leadership as based on self-actualization could further evolve to increasingly focus the help of other people in the organizational context while also not losing sight of the fairness towards and the well-being of people in the broader national societal and even global humanitarian context. Importantly, we should not forget that such a broadening of the benefits of leadership requires courageous first-/early-moving followers, who lead others not to remain passive bystanders but to support change towards growth and development of all actively. Asking managerial questions for organizational survival is foundational, but without further questioning on what basis, to what extent, and at whose cost, it is difficult to see real leadership added to management. The more inclusive and compassionate questions get expanded to the scope of all humanity, the greater the leadership involved.

In the current economic and competitive context, cooperation may indeed risk losing some battles in the field of short-term inter-organizational rivalry. However, already today more than ever, genuinely great managerial leadership also can become a competitive advantage and an opportunity for priceless emotional rewards for our all well-being. I think we are on the way to return to a more overall life-relevant philosophical understanding of leadership in which everyone’s full human potential is embraced. In that sense, leadership beyond management is relevant and possible for all of us. If we all assume a managerial leadership role, we don’t need managers anymore. Let’s take the chance.


[1] Paschen, M., & Dihsmaier, E. (2013). The psychology of human leadership: How to develop charisma and authority. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

[2] DuBrin, A. J. (2015). Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

[3] Doyle, M. E., & Smith, M. K. (2001). Classical models of managerial leadership: Trait, behavioural, contingency and transformational theory. Retrieved from

[4] Dorfman, P., Javidan, M., Hanges, P., Dastmalchian, A., & House, R. (2012). GLOBE: A twenty year journey into the intriguing world of culture and leadership. Journal of World Business, 47(4), 504–518.

[5] Soni, B., & Soni, R. (2016). Enhancing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Effective Leadership. Competition Forum, 14(2), 259-263.

      • You have a rare gift: you are “coachable.” I would love to see your take on the value of being open to coaching vs. resistant to others’ ideas.

      • Thanks a lot for this. Yes, I hope so:-).

        Albeit not specifically addressing “openness to coaching,” “openness to experience” is one of the five personality traits in the five-factor model (FFM). The mostly independent factors are extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

        Regardless of an innate tendency, openness (as any other personality trait) can be learned to a large extent. Our environment is influencing us. Traveling, role models, etc. are experiences of openness that reinforce more openness. Therefore, as I’ve learned, for example, initiatives to educate emerging adults for openness to diversity are frequent and often fruitful. In these programs, moral reasoning has proven to be a predictive factor for success too. Also, I think spirituality (not religiosity) can positively contribute as well.

        What’s your view on that?

      • Knowing how, teaching others to coach, and accepting coaching, amplifies the power leaders and managers bring to any group of human beings engaged in a quest.

      • Your “about” message tells me that you are here for people committed to growth, contribution, and happiness. You give substance to thoughts, values, and visions our world lacks, misunderstands, or ignores. You offer experiences, outlooks, and distinctions, from around the world. You are a generous student of reality.

    • Right, thanks for adding that. In my eyes, that may be because managers manage resources and leaders lead people. A manager’s job is to be smart (which may include running away); a leaders passion is to be kind.

  • Mathias, I’m really enjoying reading your blog. This post is honestly my favorite so far because I find myself in a situation where managers and leaders are involved. Do you have any book recommendations that can help me further understand how the two interact?

    My goal is to become a leadership consultant after I’m done with my current career (roughly 20 years). I’m definitely going to continue reading your material.

    • Dear Aaron
      Thank you very much for your kind feedback.

      I have referenced two books on the bottom of the article, which might be useful (Paschen & Dihsmaier (2013), DuBrin (2015)). As you liked this article and what I’ve seen on your blog though, you may extend your research a bit beyond the traditional corporate leadership literature. Therefore, I even recommend you to have a look at resources like this personal list of mine: (see section ‘Business & Leadership’ especially).

      I have learned a lot, for example, from the practical psychology of self-improvement and motivational authors who have a lot to say about leadership too. I like seeing real leadership as having the goal of creating more leaders, rather than creating more followers. Also, to paint a black and white picture, I’d like to provoke in saying that in a capitalist corporate setting true leadership is both not required and not possible. Leading volunteers without being formally assigned to titles and related power and without available rewards such as salary and promotion is an entirely different thing.

      I hope you find a lot of inspiration and I’m very curious about your journey. I wish you fruitful career transitions and hope you can make a real difference, such as introducing more leadership into our managerial world. All the best!!

  • I just started the article. Your very first line touched on one of my pet peeves…people doing surveys of management in a company and presenting the results as being from “business leaders.” The survey takers might also be leaders, but not necessarily. I’ve seen some managers who are among the least leading people in the whole company….too scared to “rock the boat” to do anything but pass along edicts from their management. More later.

  • An addition regarding the difference between leadership and management from a change perspective.

    The facilitation of change is at the core of leadership. Here we also can differentiate between change leadership (CL) and change management (CM). While CM aims to control and minimize the changes impact, CL’s mission is to engage driving forces, visions, and processes to transform more on the large-scale (Kotter, 2011)

  • You are most certainly a man with a solid and ascended societal vision, as well as rarely blessed with the genius to communicate it to those who really need to hear it now. I can only imagine what you must have gone through in this life to preserve and develop both. I’m subscribing now, and reblogging this piece to my sister site Success Inspirers World.

    • Thank you very much for your kind feedback and much-appreciated support. I’m impressed by your sensitive recognition. You might find what you are looking for:-). Yes, I’m grateful for the constellation helping me to see the things as I see them. All the best!

  • I worked for almost 9 years for two different multinationals myself and I’ve watched my husband work for another multinational for over 5 years now. Familiar with SMART and I’ve noticed within those huge companies a shift towards what your ‘wishing’. Still using SMART, but combined with leadership skills.(listening to team-members, more focus on personal development, ect). Beside the short-therm goals, developing long-therm goals. Putting clients/customers needs before the stakeholders needs. Changing the roles from departmental managers into departmental leaders. Just to give a few examples. It takes time, to get everyone on board of these ‘new’ methods/visions, but the shift is happening, dear Mathias. There is hope 😉

    In addition, of those 1% richest people, I still believe 95 % is not greedy (thinking of people as Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Obama) and we ‘common people’ have more power than it might feel we have. Focussing on those 95% of the 1% richest people of the world, will not create the change most of us want. It only will lead to more frustrated 99% ‘common people’.