Managers vs. Leaders, Authority vs. Influence

What is the Difference Between Management and Leadership?

Much has been written about the difference between managers and leaders.  It’s an important discussion because they are in fact, not the same thing.  Further, a conversation explaining the difference between management and leadership to our employees can greatly benefit an up-and-coming staffer, who is considering future positions in your organization.  Let’s take a closer look at the distinction between what it means to be a manager, and what it means to be a leader.

A Real Conversation with an Employee About Leadership

I recently sat down with an employee as part of a regularly scheduled check-in, during which we talked about her professional development and career growth.  As she aspired to eventually step into the ranks of management at some point in the future, we got into a discussion about how managers are actually different from leaders.  Her initial perception was that managers were simply the same thing as leaders because they are the head of a team or department.  While this position is understandable, she and I began to draw some distinctions.  We narrowed in on what it meant to be successful as a manager and what it meant to be successful as a leader.

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What Makes a Manager Successful?

At a basic level, successful management is about tactics.  Managers are responsible for getting things done, meeting deadlines and making decisions.  They are highly task-focused, making sure that everything under their domain is organized, crisp and scheduled appropriately.  Further, managers track and oversee employee performance and deal with personnel problems.  In short, managers are focused and measured on execution and getting results.

What Makes a Leader Successful?

By contrast, great leadership is about inspiration.  When we take a moment to think about someone we feel is a great leader, we typically describe them as someone we look up to.  While leaders in business are also good at execution, the difference is in how they get results.  Leaders possess similar skills to managers, but are further enhanced by their interpersonal connections with people.  Further, leaders understand that their results are obtained through inspiring and motivating employees, encouraging them to want to do their best.

An Example of Management vs. Leadership

Let’s consider a simple example to illustrate the difference.  A customer calls on Monday and asks for help.  They are in need of a critical product shipment by Friday.  An effective manager is likely to map out the various items that have to get done, and will go ask Michael, Anna and John to each perform a specific task in order to make the Friday deadline happen.  A good manager will do this in a non-threatening manner and the employees will follow the direction to complete their respective task.

In contrast, a good leader will pull Michael, Anna and John into a meeting room to discuss the situation.  The leader would map out what he or she thinks needs to happen as a vision.  The leader will also explain why the Friday deadline is so important and then solicit additional ideas from Michael, Anna and John on how to go about the activity.  The employees, in response, feel their input is valued and that they are part of the solution.  The team agrees on an approach and works to get the job done.

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In both cases, the results may be the same.  Both teams rallied and were able to pull through successfully.  But while the manager was able to get the task done well and on time, the leader did the same but got the results through engaging and empowering the employees.  In short, great managers will always get results, but great leaders will get results by inspiring and empowering employees to do their best.

To illustrate some more specific differences, here are some traits of two different department heads I worked with in my career.  One I would call a great manager.  The other was a great leader.

The Great Manager

The Great Leader

Organized and planned employee activitiesOrganized and planned activities with employees
Scheduled work to be completed on timeSought feedback on how to get work done on time
Created accountability and expected employees to deliver to their promisesExpected employees to deliver, but helped remove obstacles
Respected by others and kept people on taskConnected to others and willingly related to employee challenges
Hedged commitment dates to which the team could comfortably deliverProvided commitment dates based on prior feedback from employees
Highly engaged in coordinating things within the departmentProvided vision for what needed to get done and asked the team to find the best solution
Sought by employees for directionSought by employees for feedback
Respected and valued for their authorityRespected and valued for their influence


The Takeaway: Management Vs. Leadership

In short, a key difference between basic management and basic leadership comes down to how one deals with people.  Leaders connect with people in ways that managers may not (and necessarily have to).  Those interpersonal connections and inspiring vision are what create great leaders and long-term success.  In the words of one executive I met with many years ago, “natural leaders have followers because people tend to gravitate towards those who provide inspiration and motivation.”


Looking for More on Management Best Practices?  You Might Like…

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How to Manager Other Managers

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