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Leader vs. manager: what's the difference?

March 23, 2022 - 11 min read
leader vs manager

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What is leadership?

What is management?

Leader vs. manager: 3 key differences

5 key leadership skills and characteristics

5 key management skills and characteristics

Leadership and management are often intertwined concepts. In recent years, the lines between these roles have become increasingly blurry.

Both roles have decision-making power and require excellent communication skills and emotional intelligence. Their goals may even be the same. But what distinguishes a leader from a manager?

Let’s look at what each role is, what makes a great leader stand out from a good manager, and how they can both thrive.

What is leadership?

Leadership is an ambiguous term that is often misunderstood. 

A person’s title does not necessarily determine their leadership abilities, so much as the way a person interacts with and impacts others. People tend to listen to and follow a leader because they want to, rather than because they feel like they must.

Effective leaders excel at motivating and inspiring others to work toward a common goal. They empower team members to share their ideas and encourage effective feedback systems.

While their ultimate goal might be to drive revenue for the organization, a good leader looks at the bigger picture. And they accomplish their goals by focusing on their people, understanding each individual’s value, and building teams based on their skillsets.


What is management?

Management can take many forms. And as we mentioned, not all managers have outstanding leadership qualities. Managers’ primary tasks include organizing, planning, and coordinating. Their ultimate goal is often to help make a measurable impact on an organizations’ trajectory. 

This can be by motivating employees, setting and adjusting goals, and addressing performance issues within their team. 

A manager may have authority over some stakeholders in large matrix organizations, but not all. Similarly, a manager may manage “things” like deadlines, resources, and tools. They may also manage people.

Though managers often focus on the human element of the workforce and what each individual brings to the table, their primary concern is often tied to their primary goal. They are likely to measure performance by quantifiable outcomes and control or manage situations to improve these outcomes.


Leader vs. manager: 3 key differences

When you want to differentiate between leadership and people management, remember that it is similar to the rule that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. In leadership circles, all leaders are managers, but not all managers are leaders.

1. Influence vs. organization

In its basic form, influence is the ability to affect an outcome. And both managers and leaders use their influence in different ways.

A manager tends to organize people, goals, and processes to meet their objectives.

This form of influence is more tactile. It may entail instructing, monitoring, assessing, delivering feedback, and giving incrementally more challenging tasks. The manager has to keep people motivated day-to-day.

A leader, on the other hand, has a job to influence directly. 

Whereas a leader may not deal with the tactical nuances of a project, the leader inspires and influence people to take action.

2. Vision ideation vs. execution

This influence is typically based on a solid vision. A leader creates that vision and tells its story, ultimately selling it and getting buy-in from stakeholders, employees, and customers alike. 

A leader sets a vision and may get others to help execute on it, while a manager directly executes a vision.

A manager executes on that vision — usually deep into tactical planning, focused on how to get their people from point A to point B.  

3. Asking why vs. how

We’ve established that both leaders and managers have expectations and goals to live up to. To do so, both parties have to include the right questions in their decision-making process.

For example, effective leadership often wants to know why an initiative is suggested. On the other hand, a manager might be more interested in understanding how the initiative could work. They may ask to know which resources and budget are required, while a leader would ask what the intention behind the project is.

5 key leadership skills and characteristics

1. Asks strategic questions 

Whether explicitly or internally, a good leader is always asking, “are we solving the right problem?” 

Sometimes this question may show up as a simple “why?” or “why not?” This is the leader’s way of challenging normative thinking so the team can be more focused, creative, and strategic.

2. Creates clarity 

The business world today is ambiguous and constantly changing. A successful leader creates clarity for their team. 

This can be verbal clarity, such as deciding or reiterating something, or behavioral, such as exhibiting the organization’s values with consistency. 

3. Focus and prioritization 

Attention is scarce in today’s working world. 

Distractions, getting pulled in different directions, and varying interests all threaten our ability to hold our attention. A good leader does more than show people what is important. 

They also help people focus on what can be (and should be) deprioritized. This is critical for a busy modern organization. 

4. Vulnerability and humility

While many leaders in the news and media are flashy, bombastic, and egotistical, I argue that most good leaders show humility and vulnerability. 

Especially for new leaders, humility fosters leadership trust. Vulnerability, or the openness to express raw emotion, creates a closeness and identification with employees, even if there is no personal relationship. Both of these constructs motivate and engage employees. 

Great leaders embody a leadership style that requires self-reflection and values self-awareness. They consider their leadership skills and shortcomings to continuously improve.

5. Compelling communication

The ability to influence most often relies on verbal communication. 

While leaders communicate in various styles — tough, fervent, kind, supportive, persuasive, funny, inspirational — the style matters less than the ability to inspire people to act or think differently. This is what it means to be compelling.


5 key management skills and characteristics

1. Organization

Coordination, planning, staffing, and budgeting are all part of a manager’s scope. One essential skill required for each of those areas is organization.

This organization must extend to other people and teams, meaning the manager must be able to communicate the methods or mechanisms of their team. For example, this could be a dashboard report, a key metric, a daily meeting.

A good manager also leverages this organization to remain on top of day-to-day operations. Looking for the best ways to optimize their team and meet their organizational goals is one of the many functions of management.

Without strong organizational ability, a manager would quickly lose sight of the road ahead.

2. Strategic anticipation 

This is all about being strategic and anticipating what might happen. This preparation and scenario planning is critical for the manager as all the subject-matter-experts have their heads down, immersed in their tasks. 

3. Vision execution

An effective manager is a systems thinker that can articulate how their work projects fit into a larger goal or initiative

Similarly to the above, the manager must be able to explain what part each person plays in the initiative. Sometimes, one task or role may seem excessive, but in reality, it is a critical keystone to the entire endeavor. 

4. Empathy 

The manager must balance empathy and direction, such as listening and telling. 

This is a tricky balance, no doubt. Empathy involves understanding the good, bad, and the ugly with front-line workers, which often requires an abundance of listening.

5. Healthy risk tolerance (but not too healthy!) 

Managers must learn to take small, calculated risks. Too big of risks can put the project tasks in a threatening position, but calculated risks can prove very fruitful.

Are you better as a leader or a manager?

It’s important to note that we need both managers and leaders. 

Both roles contribute to achieving the right goals in the right way. If your strengths lie in keeping things organized, tactical, and productive even when things get uncomfortable or pressured, then you may have excellent management potential. 

If you have a knack for inspiring big thinking, challenging the status quo, and influencing people to go along with your ideas, then leadership of some sort may be in your future. Lean into developing more and broader leadership skills.

If you're looking for more support, BetterUp can help. Working on this self-reflection of your strengths with BetterUp is a great way to get some clarity on your next career move.

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Published March 23, 2022

Lauren Miller

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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