Managers Versus Leaders: the big Debate! » Mind Tools Blog

Managers Versus Leaders: the big Debate!

May 12, 2015


What’s the difference between managers and leaders?

It’s one of those questions you might expect to answer if you’re sitting an end-of-year business-studies exam in high school. I’m sure I had to do an assignment at college on this very subject. I probably wrote about how a manager is an organizer, who makes day-to-day decisions for his or her team, and gets work done, whereas a leader inspires others, innovates and creates a vision for the future.

But since I graduated, I’ve realized how often organizations use the two terms interchangeably. How many of us have worked in places with “leadership teams,” comprising all the heads of department? What makes the people in those teams “leaders,” I often wonder? Is it because they have the natural charisma and flair that motivates people to work toward achieving organizational goals? Or, is it simply because they’ve reached a certain level in the company? Perhaps the rationale is that if they’re given the leadership label, they’ll live up to the expectations that go along with it!

But isn’t using the term “leadership” in this way a little bogus? Surely being a leader is about your personal effectiveness, and is something that other people see in you. Yes, it’s true: leaders are often in senior positions, but that doesn’t make them effective as leaders. They often get to this level by being technically good at their day jobs, rather than being great leaders, and many of them never end up receiving the training or coaching that they need to develop the right skills for the position.

While some people are not natural leaders, other are. I can think of many colleagues from past workplaces who aren’t in positions of power, but have real personal influence. These are individuals who frequently take the initiative, have great foresight, and are naturally inspiring. They’re the ones who often have more impact and influence on the workplace than many of the so-called “leaders” I’ve come across. Yes, you can learn the skills to be a more effective leader, but some people just have it.

We recently asked for your #mindtoolstips on what the main differences are between being a manager and a leader. We were overwhelmed by your many suggestions on Facebook and Twitter, so thanks very much for all your contributions!

Many people talked about how managers get things done, whereas leaders inspire others. @JayneMcPhillimy said that managers focus on tasks, whereas leaders focus on vision, and support and develop their people to achieve it. And on a similar note, @ChjaQuinn posted: “A manager directs the task but leaders inspire their people about what to care about and what to achieve. Their people are loyal followers.”

Another great post came from Ahead Management, who gave some great examples about the differences. “A manager has a tendency to manage activities such as money, time, paperwork, materials, equipment, and focuses on planning, organizing, controlling, coordinating, budgeting, and decision making. A leader has a tendency towards activities that influence and inspire people, and spends most of his time sharing and discussing visions, values, core beliefs, focusing on the big picture, potentials, possibilities, relationships, teamwork, listening, development, and coaching the middle managers and staff.”

Diane Miller talked about how “a manager ‘manages’ her business and people, while a leader empowers, motivates, inspires, and engages with her team… And always leads by example.” And Bruno Martins wrote, “A manager cares about what people are expected to do; a leader cares about what people think about the work that they are doing, and he considers people as the main resource in the organization.”

Some of you discussed the limitations of managers. @DrIanPritchard gave a great response. “‘Manager’ is a title; a leader is a person. Managers are limited by rationality, while leaders contend with the whole.” And @SelfLeadership1 said that, “Managers get caught up in directing people rather than supporting the team to find a natural direction.”

We received some nice pithy sayings from a number of you. For example, @The_Math_Wiz commented: “A manager makes decisions that affect the present. A leader makes decisions for the future.” On Facebook, Anom Mohammad posted, “A manager says ‘do it,’ a leader says ‘LET’S do it’.” @draziraphale and Alex MC Tan both shared the well-known saying, “A manager makes sure things are done right. A leader makes sure you do the right things.” And ‏@tweet_miki posted, “A leader strategizes, a manager crystallizes.” We also had this one, “Managers manage; leaders inspire,” from @Lettie44.

On Facebook, Vaibhav Gupta gave this comprehensive response, “1) Managers react to change, whereas leaders implement it by talking and synchronizing with different teams. 2) Managers exercise power over people, whereas leaders develop power with people. 3) Managers may or may not be leaders. 4) Leaders always follow a ‘we’ approach.’”

Some people said there was little or no difference between the two, or that it changes according to the situation. ‏@deneaze66 tweeted: “Both are service roles and should aim to support and encourage employees, as well as to carry out management duties.” And @calmspacecoach diplomatically reasoned that it “depends on the context.”

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to share their ideas. If you’ve got anything further to add, please join in the discussion below!

21 thoughts on “Managers Versus Leaders: the big Debate!

  1. Bruce Murray wrote:

    It’s clear that all the participants have a good grasp on the differences between managing and leading. The remaining questions are:
    1.) Why do organization insist on referring to all managers as leaders (when clearly some are not) and never refer to any non-manager as a leader?
    2.) While we recognize effectiveness in both managers and leaders, what do we do when we can’t stand our manager’s style or disagree with the leader’s vision?

  2. nick wrote:

    Leaders focus on inspiration and managers focus on results.

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Love that Nick! Inspiration versus results! I agree, if you inspire people, the results will be achieved.

  3. Laura Hothersall wrote:

    Leaders climb the highest tree and see the way forward. Managers manage the people on the ground towards the path to success

    1. YolandeMT wrote:

      Wow Laura – great way of describing it. Both roles are necessary in order to reach success.

  4. Ivy McFarlane wrote:

    A manager follows a process to get results and instructs you how to get there.
    A leader explains the end result and engages you throughout the process.

    1. YolandeMT wrote:

      I love how you differentiated Ivy – thanks for sharing that.
      So, does a leader allow more freedom…maybe room for working out how to do something your way while still getting to the same end result? I’m interested to hear what others think.

  5. masiboyi moffat wrote:

    managers are made while leaders are born. leaders are path founder while managers are path follower

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      hi masiboyi,
      Great way of putting things about path finders versus path followers! Thanks for sharing.

      Midgie, Mind Tools Team

    2. Jeremy Stephens wrote:

      I would disagree. Leadership can be learned. Many young men I have worked with in Scouting have learned to be leaders over there years. For some, it is a significant change from where they started at 11 until 18.

    3. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Hi Jeremy,
      Thanks for reminding us about the Scouting movement, where leadership skills are indeed developed and can make such a difference to these individuals in all that they do.

      Midgie, Mind Tools Team

  6. G.K.Rathinam wrote:

    That’s a wonderful message. Thanks for sharing

  7. G.K.Rathinam wrote:

    “A manager says ‘do it,’ a leader says ‘LET’S do it’.” “a manager ‘manages’ her business and people, while a leader empowers, motivates, inspires, and engages with her team… And always leads by example.”.

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Love it … the difference between directing yet not being involved versus being involved and doing the work together!

  8. JL Welf wrote:

    Managers or leaders can all use a tool to visualize ideas clearly.

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Anything to help both leaders and manager convey their complex ideas in a simply way helps!

  9. James Mayer wrote:

    In every organization we have found a work flow and designation flow which helps to maintain a better working atmosphere. In this post also we have found some quality of reviews in between the comparison of manager versus leaders. A manager is eligible to manage different organizations work and a leader is eligible to lead a team management. Most probably a manager also needs some quality leadership skills and strategies in order to develop his or her personal as well as professional skills. This below link will also provide some quality of information about developing leadership skills.

    1. Midgie Thompson wrote:

      Thanks James for sharing your thoughts about the differences between a leader and a manager, and for the link to the slideshare on leadership.

  10. Caroline Smith wrote:

    That’s a great one. Thank you for sharing!

  11. fmch201 wrote:

    Managers maintain the status quo, leaders challenge it.

    1. YolandeMT wrote:

      Hmmm…that’s one to think about, fmch201. I like it.

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