Planning vs. Setting a Direction

This week’s blog series will focus on the distinct, nitty-gritty details that separate managers from leaders. We will discuss three specific skill sets and determine how they can be used to create the perfect balance of becoming both a manager and a leader. Let’s get started with skill set #1!

Take these simple definitions. Management is about dealing with complexity. Leadership is about dealing with change. * In today’s climate, you need both sets of skills, but not everyone does both equally well. If you do not have the balance of skills, it is important to build them, or find team members who can help. 

Before moving on, think of a project or a team of which you are currently in charge. As the skill set is discussed, which of these activities are you doing– managing or leading or both? Some amount of both is necessary. Do you have the right balance?

In our projects, we manage complexity by planning and budgeting—setting goals for the next month or year; establishing detailed steps for achieving those targets, and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans. This activity is intended to create specific predicted results.

By contrast, setting a direction requires you to examine a large amount of information, looking for patterns, relationships and linkages that help predict an appropriate path forward. Leading an organization to constructive change requires developing a vision of the (often distant) future along with strategies to achieve that vision.


Long-term planning is not a solution for a lack of direction. With no vision and strategy to guide planning, managers can get caught up in planning for every possible contingency, causing the process to seemingly go on forever–draining time, energy and resources. Creating direction prior to planning provides focus and prioritization for the planning and budgeting activity. Direction must be provided before planning.

Is the plan you are working on today guided by a vision? Where is the plan taking you? Are the activities on your to-do list moving you toward a vision or just filling your day?

Look out for the second post in the series coming to you on Wednesday! We’ll be discussing the skill set necessary to achieve your plan by managing and leading everyone around you.

* These definitions from John Kotter (Harvard Business Review, 1990)