Leadership vs Management: What is the difference?

Leadership vs Management: What is the difference?

Avantika Monnappa

Last updated July 27, 2017


Questions on the differences between leaders and managers are a near-constant in today’s world. And neither the nature of the queries nor that of the cookie-cutter quips that are quickly offered up as sagely advice has undergone significant change over the decades.

Are they similar or are they different? Does one lead to the other? Do professionals possess both qualities or do one or the other have to be inculcated over a long period of time? How would this differentiation impact day-to-day work in an organization?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg: in this article, we shall attempt to answer and address a few of these oft-raised queries and concerns.

The What

First, let us consider the what. What is leadership, and what is management?

The words ‘leader’ and ‘manager’ are among the most commonly used words in the world of business, and are often used interchangeably. But have you ever pondered what they really mean? To be better at a leadership or a managerial job, you would first need to understand what the terms mean and entail.

What Do Managers Do?

A manager is an employee of a company or an organization who is bestowed the responsibility of carrying out the four important functions of management – planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Spotting the ‘leading’ clause, you may begin to wonder if all managers are leaders.

Yes! Most managers also tend to be leaders, but only IF they adequately carry out the leadership responsibilities of management, which include communication, motivation, providing inspiration and guidance, and encouraging employees to rise to a higher level of productivity.

But not all managers are leaders! Some managers have poor leadership qualities, and employees follow orders from their managers because they are obligated to do so and not necessarily because they are influenced by the leader.

Managerial duties are generally part of job descriptions, and are formally laid-out. One becomes a manager by virtue of his or her position and makes subordinates follow because of the title or designation.

The chief focus of a manager is to meet organizational goals and objectives, and typically do not take much else into consideration. A manager is held responsible for his actions as well as for the actions of his subordinates. With the title comes the authority and the privilege to promote, hire, fire, discipline, or reward employees based on their performance and behavior.

What Do Leaders Do?

The primary difference between management and leadership is that leaders do not necessarily hold or occupy a management position. Simply put, it is not necessary that a leader be an authoritative figure in the organization. A leader can be any regular employee.

Unlike managers, leaders are followed because of their personality and their beliefs. A leader invests personally into tasks and projects, and demonstrates a high level of passion for work, and take great deal of interest in the success of their followers, enabling them to reach their goals to satisfaction, which are not necessarily organizational goals.

There is no tangible or formal power that a leader possess over his followers. Temporary power is awarded to a leader and is conditional based on the ability of the leader to continually inspire and motivate his followers.

Subordinates of a manager are forced to obey orders, while following is optional when it comes to leadership. Those who do wish to follow their leader may stop. Leadership works on inspiration and trust among employees. Generally, leaders are people who challenge the status quo. Leadership is change-savvy, visionary, agile, creative, and adaptive.

The Traits

What Are The Traits A Manager Possesses?

#1 The ability to execute a Vision: Managers build a strategic vision and break it down into a road map for their team to follow.

#2 The ability to Direct: Managers are responsible for day-to-day efforts, while reviewing necessary resources and anticipating needs to make changes along the way.

#3 Process Management: Managers possess the authority to establish work rules, processes, standards, and operating procedures.

#4 People Focused: Managers are known to look after and cater to the needs of the people they are responsible for, listening to them, involving them in certain key-decisions, and accommodating reasonable requests for change to contribute to increased productivity.

Traits of a manager

What Are The Traits A Leader Possesses?

#1 Vision: A leader knows where they stand, where they want to go, and would involve the team in the charting of a future path and direction.

#2 Honesty & Integrity: Leaders have people who believe them and walk by their side down the path they wish to tread.

#3 Inspiration: Leaders are usually inspirational and help their team understand their role in a bigger context.

#4 Communication Skills: Leaders always keep their team informed about the occurrences of the present and the future and the obstacles that stand in their way.

#5 Ability to Challenge: Leaders are those that challenge the status quo. They have their own style of doing things and working problems out. They are the ones with the ability to think outside the box.

Traits of a leader

The Three Important Differences

Being a manager and a leader at the same time is viable concept. But remember, just because someone is a phenomenal leader it does not necessarily guarantee that the person will be an exceptional manager as well, and vice versa. So – what are the stand-out differences between the two roles?

#1 A leaders invents or innovates while a manager organizes.

The leader in the team comes up with the new ideas and kick starts the organization’s shift or transition to a forward-thinking phase. A leader always has his or her eyes set on the horizon. He or she develops new techniques and strategies for the organization. A leader has immense knowledge of all the current trends, advancements, skillsets, and has clarity of purpose and vision.

By contrast, a manager is someone who generally only maintains what is already established. A manager needs to watch the bottom-line and control employees and workflow in the organization, preventing any kind of chaos.

In his book, The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management: Lasting Lessons from the Best Leadership Minds of Our Time, Alan Murray cites Drucker as saying that a manager is someone who "establishes appropriate targets and yardsticks, and analyzes, appraises and interprets performance." Managers understand the people who work alongside them and know which person is the best-fit for a specific task.

#2 A manager relies on control whereas a leader inspires trust

A leader is a person who pushes employees to do their best and knows how to set an appropriate pace and tempo for the rest of the group.

Managers, on the other hand, are required by their job description to establish control over employees which, in turn, helps them develop their own assets and brings out the best in them. Thus, managers have to understand their subordinates well to do their best job.

#3 A leader asks the questions ‘what’ and ‘why’ whereas a manager leans more towards the questions ‘how’ and ‘when’.

This means that to be able to do justice to their role as leader, some may need to question and challenge authority to modify or even reverse decisions that may not have the team’s best interests in mind.

Good leadership thus requires a great deal of good judgment, and the ability to stand up to senior management over a point of concern or if there is an aspect in need of improvement. If a company goes through a dry patch, a leader will be the one who will stand up and ask the question: “What did we learn from this?”

Managers, however, are not required to assess and analyze failures. Their job description emphasizes asking the questions “how” and “when”. This usually helps them make sure that the plan that is put into place is executed accordingly. They tend to accept the status quo exactly the way it is and do not attempt a change.


The Three Tests

Vineet Nayar, in his article ‘Three Differences between managers and leaders’ talks about three tests that he came up with to help managers decide if they have successfully made the shift from managing people to leading them. 

The three tests

#1 Counting Value vs. Creating Value

Managers are the only ones who count value, he says. There are some who cut down on the value by disabling or otherwise countering ideas and people who add value.

Leaders, however, have their focus on creating some kind of value. The leader works to generate a certain value that is over and above that which the team creates. He is as much a creator of value as his followers are. Nayar goes on to say that, “Leading by example and leading by enabling people are the hallmarks of action-based leadership.”

#2 Circles of influence vs. Circles of Power

As mentioned previously, managers have subordinates and leaders gain followers, thus implying that managers create a circle of power while leaders create a circle of influence. Nayar offers advice on how to identify which circle you have, around you. He says, “The quickest way to figure out which of the two you’re doing is to count the number of people outside your reporting hierarchy who come to you for advice. The more that do, the more likely it is that you are perceived to be a leader.”

#3 Leading People vs. Managing People

One responsibility of a manager is controlling a group in order to accomplish a certain goal. Leadership, on the other hand, is the ability of an individual to motivate, influence, and enable other employees to make a contribution towards the success of an organization. Inspiration and influence separate leaders from managers, not control and power.

The Tips To Be A Good Manager

Tips to be a good manager

#1. Expect excellence

It is important for a manager to set high and realistic standards, and expect employees to meet them. Ultimately, the best managers are not those who are the nicest or the toughest, but those who get things done and demonstrate tangible results. Once employees understand that a manager expects excellence from himself and from others, they will automatically begin to up their game and perform better.

#2. Communicate regularly by providing meaningful feedback in real time

At first, communicating effectively may sound a bit trite, but it is fundamental to sound management. The best and strongest managers are those who are excellent communicators. The ability to provide both positive and negative feedback is a core skill and competency for managers.

#3. Don’t avoid conflict, but deal with it directly and fairly

Every professional knows that the workplace is a breeding ground for conflict. Issues like compensation, interpersonal problems, cost-cutting, recognition, management-employee relations, layoffs, and many other points of conflict are bound to arise. There is never a shortage of molehills to create mountains out of.
Though it is tempting to turn a deaf ear, the best managers do not avoid conflict, instead address the problem fairly. Employees observe who take up responsibility and who doesn’t. They show respect to those managers who resolve issues immediately than those who turn the other cheek.

#4. Be open to new ways of looking at things

Adaptability, flexibility, and being attuned to their environment are some of the qualities of a good manager. They always look for new ways, new opportunities. They listen to what others have to say. It is important to be a good listener. Most often, the best process improvement ideas come from those employees who are relatively low in the organizational hierarchy. A good manager is never afraid to shift from the usual “This is the way we’ve always done it here.”

#5. Accept that you still have a lot to learn

On attaining a management position, managers sometimes forget that they are in the process of learning, too. They may have expertise in their field with years of experience, but keeping your mind open to new ideas is important. Professional advancement is fueled by a constant learning-process and once a manager accepts this and sets continuous improvement as standard, he becomes a better manager than before.

#6. Set a good example

If a manager has an insular mentality, he would struggle to understand his subordinates, and face difficulty in making them abide by his rules. The same professionalism, commitment, and dedication that he demands from his juniors need to be upheld by him, as well.

#7. Be decisive

It is important for a manager to take decisions and stick to these right up until the end. Employees are generally not comfortable with someone who constantly changes their mind on issues. A confident manager is one who does not fear himself being wrong. The best managers use bad situations as learning curves and as examples of what not to do. Employees are generally repelled by those employers who are in denial of the repercussions of the decisions that have been made by them.

#8. Be patient with yourself

Being able to develop strong skills leading and managing takes time. Keep in mind all of the above tips. Talk to more people who have been in the role, learn from them. This will improve your skills as a manager.

Tips To Be A Good Leader

Tips to be a good leader

#1. Be humble      

There is a huge difference between being a leader and being a boss. A leader is someone who usually shares his spotlight and credits his followers for the work that they have done. It takes more confidence in being humble than in basking in the glory of accomplishment. Clients and employees appreciate humility, and leaders who give credit where credit’s due!

#2. Lead by example

It is important for leaders to lead by example. They cannot be hypocrites. If a leader wants his subordinates to be punctual, he is going to have to establish the habit of being punctual himself. Leaders need to set the tone and the followers will be inspired to follow, automatically.

#3. Communicate effectively

As with managers, leaders need to be able to effectively communicate as well, both on the job and off the job. Along with being heard and understood, great leaders also know the importance of listening. Leaders understand that communication is a two-way street.

#4. Know your limits

It is important for leaders to set limits for themselves. Leaders need to know what and how much they can tolerate, saving the entire office bucket loads of frustration. Keeping clear boundaries does not give rise to any sort of confusion.

#5. Keep meetings productive

Time is money! Avoid tangential discussions and other sources of unproductivity during meetings. Leaders need to trust their team to do their job right, and there will thus be no need for micro-management.

#6. Be emotionally aware

It’s a common piece of advice to keep all kinds of emotions out of the office. However, it is forgotten that business is more about the relationships between people. And to build and nurture lasting relationships a good leader has to be emotionally intelligent.

#7. Never stop improving

Great leaders are constantly learning and updating their knowledge. They never stop. They are constantly trying to improve themselves and be better. There is always a new skill to master or a new project to work on. Great leaders keep their mind open for new possibilities and fresh ideas.

Difference between leadership and management

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About the Author

A project management and digital marketing knowledge manager, Avantika’s area of interest is project design and analysis for digital marketing, data science, and analytics companies. With a degree in journalism, she also covers the latest trends in the industry, and is a passionate writer.


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