Power, Politics and Conflict in a Digital World

The roles of leader and manager may appear distinct but there is significant overlap and synergy between the two functions and the distinction is not as clear as it may first appear. In recent years, there has been a trend to move organisations away from traditional hierarchical management structures towards a more open leadership style which is more participative and allows individual leaders to emerge at all levels of an organisation.

The difference between leaders and managers

It is generally accepted that the main distinction between the roles is that managers follow instructions while leaders try to influence the outcome of these instructions and decisions (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2010, pp. 598). Kearley (2010) for example, found that outstanding leaders “see the whole picture rather than compartmentalising”, whereas managers tend to work in silos and carry out instructions.

However, there are also many other differences between the two types of function as outlined in the table below showing the differences and similarities between managers and leaders – based on information from Zalenik (1977) and Giang (2012).

Managers Leaders
Rational and controlling Laid back and rely on Trust
Directive Supportive
Autocratic Democratic
Have position based authority Authority and respect are earned
Achieve Goals using prescribed methods Achieve goals by exploring alternative methods
Ask closed questions Ask open questions
Enable processes Establish processes
Communicate using instructions Communicate using broad objectives
Administer Innovate

Although there are clearly differences between the two types of function, it is important to realise that an individual can fulfil both the role of manager and leader. There are times when it is appropriate to behave more like a leader and think strategically and times when it is more appropriate to follow instructions and behave more like a manager.

How are Leadership qualities affected by online environments?

Goethals, Sorenson and MacGregor Burns (2004) discuss how the traditional roles of manager and leader are beginning to change in the digital age with new social structures evolving that use technology as well as more traditional methods of communication. They highlight that leadership in the digital environment is less hierarchical and can span not just geographical boundaries but political and organisational boundaries too.

This is certainly my experience, as increasingly my role requires me to work with individuals outside my organisational boundaries to fulfil shared objectives. Not only is this resulting in a different way of having to lead groups of disparate people but has also resulted in the formation of virtual teams.

Virtual teams use collaborative and communication tools (such as discussion forums and video conferencing) to facilitate joint working across the confines of traditional organisational limits. In these teams, there is no specified leader so it is interesting to observe how a leader will still emerge as the dominant figure. Even in these virtual teams there are still opportunities to innovate and to look at wider strategic aims to achieve shared goals.

Which management and leadership skills are changing?

Mortensen and O’Leary (2012) suggest that as teams become virtualised, there is a need for leaders of the teams to become more autocratic and less democratic, shifting from the coaching and mentoring role to the directing and delegating role.

This suggests that the situational leadership model proposed by Ken Blanchard is less applicable to teams working in the online world.  Smeby (2011) describes how individuals moving through the change curve of the model will require different types of management and leadership at different stages as shown in figure 1. However, the virtual environment is not as conducive to this kind of interaction as it would be in the offline world, so leaders need to focus more on the ‘delegating’ element for competent employees and the ‘direction’ element for less competent individuals.

The difficulties forming relationships in a virtual team could go some way to explaining this change so managers have to behave less like leaders and become more directive.  Mortensen and O’Leary (2012) warn that without strong direction, there is likely to be confusion about aims and objectives leaving employees feeling frustrated and confused and potentially missing deadlines.

Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model - Richard Price

Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model – Taken from Smeby (2011)


Which functions seem to be relatively stable?

That is not to say though that the leadership function is being replaced in the online world by a more autocratic regime. There are still opportunities for leaders to emerge but more effort is required because of the difficulties building rapport in virtual teams.

Goethals, Sorenson and MacGregor Burns (2004) argue that while the way in which teams are working may be different and there is an increased reliance on technology, the fundamental roles of leaders and managers are not changing, as goals still need to be achieved and targets met. Managers still need to administer and leaders still need to innovate.


Can we make predictions about future development?

We are already seeing organisations taking a less hierarchical approach to leadership with many employers encouraging leadership at all levels. I believe this trend will continue in the future and this is a view shared by a number of authors who contributed to a discussion facilitated by the Harvard Business Review (Peebles, 2010). The contributors argue that the hierarchical structures are no longer sustainable as individuals do not respond favourably to ‘top down’ leadership.

Peebles (2010) also discusses the need for greater ‘mindfulness’ particularly in the online world of leadership. To succeed, online leaders must spend more time observing and paying attention to their teams than they perhaps would in the office environment.

This means that leaders can potentially emerge within their organisation or even outside the organisation to influence the direction of a team. For example, anyone can setup a blog and voice their opinion. A Twitter page can be created with people following the opinions and ideas of an individual, so that person becomes a leader even though they do not directly manage or have any physical presence with the people they are influencing.



Buchanan, D. & Huczynski, A. (2010) Organizational Behaviour. 7th Ed. London: Pearson.

Giang, V. (2012) 3 Things That Separate Leaders From Managers. [Online]. Available from: http://www.openforum.com/articles/3-things-that-separate-leaders-from-managers/ (Accessed: 13 February 2013).

Goethals, G., Sorenson, G. & MacGregor Burns, J. (2004) ‘Leadership in the Digital Age’, Encyclopedia of Leadership [Online]. Available from: http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/leadership/Leadership_in_the_Digital_Age.pdf (Accessed: 13 February 2013).

Kearley, R. (2010) What makes an outstanding leader? [Online]  Available from: http://www.managers.org.uk/practical-support/management-community/blogs/what-makes-outstanding-leader (Accessed: 12 February 2013).

Mortensen, M. & O’Leary, M. (2012) ‘Managing a Virtual Team’, Harvard Business Review Blog. [Online]. Available from: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/04/how_to_manage_a_virtual_team.html (Accessed: 13 February 2013).

Peebles, E. (2010) ‘What Lies Ahead for Leadership?’, Harvard Business Review Blog [Online]. Available from: http://blogs.hbr.org/imagining-the-future-of-leadership/2010/06/a-lively-dialog-on-leadership.html (Accessed: 13 February 2013).

Zaleznik, A. (1977) ‘Managers and leaders: Are they different’, Harvard Business [Online]. Available from: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/pubhealth/isett/Session%2004/Zaleznik%201992%20Leadership.pdf (Accessed: 13 February 2013).


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