What's the Difference Between
Supervision, Management and Leadership?

Often the words leadership and management are used interchangeably however there are some very distinct and important differences between these two as well as the third element, supervision.


Quite simply, supervision involves the direct engagement, instruction and monitoring of tasks and activities. When one is being supervised, they will be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and be expected to report back when finished.

Now this may seem somewhat harsh and limiting but there are definitely times when supervision is the right level of engagement to have with people.

The most obvious of these situations is in emergencies. In an emergency situation, speed and disciplined execution are what defines success. So if you are the Captain of a fire brigade and you arrive on scene to find a house engulfed in flames, it is entirely appropriate for you to start issuing orders. There is great clarity of expectation in this approach and a high degree of standardisation and routine. It is fast, efficient and short term in nature.


Management on the other hand is a lot more participative and engaging. I consider management to be process oriented rather than "task" oriented and the process is very simply one of: Plan, Do, Review. You will see the term management being use all over the place such as in "Performance Management" or "Project Management" and in each case, you will note a very similar process: Plan, Do, Review.

There is nothing wrong with management as a way of engaging people and there is a lot more latitude for participation than in the supervisory role. For example, people on the team can participate in the development of the plan, have great influence on "how" things get done and look forward to the review of their performance today so that they can modify the plan and continue on the path to success.


The final element in engagement is of course, leadership. There are many different definitions for leadership and I think in is most basic form, it is about inspiring exceptional performance to achieve a common goal. People follow leaders willingly. There is no authority involved and I have often told my clients that if you need to invoke positional authority, then you have stopped leading and have moved back down the chain to either management (e.g. "Here is the plan and what we are going to do because I am the manager.") or supervision, (e.g. "I am in charge here, so Bob you do this, Betty, you do that and let me know when you are done.")

So what is the advantage of leadership over management? In essence, I believe that with great management you get what you want (or plan for). With great leadership you get far more than you imagined was even possible. That is the kind of thing that happens when you inspire others to contribute to their fullest and it is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things any of us can do as human beings.

A Complete Reframe

And now for the real "kicker".  The leadership model that I think speaks to a lot of the challenges and opportunities in organizational life these days includes "Management" as part of the the overall leadership model.

In this model, to Lead is to both inspire great performance through vision, mission and values, as well as to manage, which is the process of planning, executing the plan, reviewing progress and modifying the plan to reflect the feedback from the review.

It turns out, Leadership and Management need not be mutually exclusive!  Management is an integral part of Leadership - just not the only part!

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