The Big Difference Between Leaders and Managers

Leaders are a causal force — they cause things to happen that were not going to happen without their influence.

They are future oriented and they envision possibilities that are often discontinuous with the past. They are adept at innovating, articulating a vision, architecting strategies, and inspiring growth and development in others on behalf of the vision.

Leaders are rich in determination and unwavering in resourcefulness. Thus, every person in every role has the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate leadership — to be fully engaged and to perform beyond their day-to-day management responsibilities.

Both leadership AND management are needed

Managers attend to operational excellence and, at their best, deliver against expectations. Managers provide the business and its stakeholders with reliability, certainty, and predictability, all of which are essential to the viability and longevity of the organization.

Great managers attend to continuous process improvement, monitor progress against objectives, and track and report the data that allows for solid fact-based decisions. Thus, every person in every role has management responsibility — the requirement to ensure that others can rely on them and their teams to deliver as promised within the parameters agreed.

For an organization to achieve strong results, both leadership and management need to be present. Management allows for leadership, and leadership invites development as people stretch toward the new vision and its inherent possibilities.

In most large organizations, individuals who master the management responsibilities in a given role are seen as promising candidates for the next level, especially if they begin to offer ideas and strategic suggestions beyond their area of responsibility, or if they do outstanding work on a special cross-functional task force.

However, leadership, as many find out, is not simply an advanced form of management. Often when a promotion comes, a difficult transition process begins, in which the newly promoted individual needs to prove value and competency at the next level. To do so, the new leader must let go of managing the very processes and functions on which his or her reputation has been established.

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A key is a strong leadership pipeline

When managers are promoted into leadership positions, instead of embracing their new roles and stepping up to lead in their new capacity, they sometimes stay stuck in the management of their previous jobs. If the transition does not go well, as in the case of the person who remains too attached to his or her previous role and does not learn to delegate and entrust others to do the job, the leadership pipeline becomes clogged. This is an especially noticeable situation in home-grown organizations, in which smart, talented people are promoted from within and not adequately supported in their leadership development.

Best-in-class organizations recognize the challenges of building a strong leadership pipeline. They recognize the fact that leadership is not simply an advanced form of management — they are actually separate skill sets, actions, behaviors, and competencies.

These organization take deliberate steps to ensure that newly promoted (and newly acquired) talent have the support needed to succeed at higher, more visible levels of the organization. In this way, they support the development of a leadership culture.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced when making the transition from a non-manager, to a manager, to a leader? How were you able to overcome those challenges?

This was originally published on the DecisionWise blog.

Linda Linfield is the Director of Talent Assessment at DecisionWise, a management consulting firm specializing in leadership and organization development using assessments, feedback, coaching, and training. She is a catalyst for change with a passion for leadership development and a talent for challenging high-potential leaders and teams to become increasingly effective.


9 Comments on “The Big Difference Between Leaders and Managers

  1. One of the mistakes companies most often make is to assume a great employee will be a great manager. This may be the case bit the employee must first receive the training on how to effectively manage a team. Failure to do so often stunts the growth of the employee and can even cause the person to fail in the new role, pending circumstances of course.

    1. I agree Kyle. Often in my company, the employees who are promoted aren’t necessarily management material; they just happen to be the ones who are left after everyone else has been let go or gone elsewhere for greener pastures. Great employees, but not ready to manage a team and often overwhelmed.

      1. Wow this is so true and Im glad I read you guys post! I was thrown into a management position from a foreman position and I struggled bad. It seemed like all that changed was my pay scale but the know how was not there. Now as a business owner Im just making progress 5 years later into my own business the fact that self employment does not make me a business owner. It is sometimes hard to accept but you guys are right.

  2. Hi Linda. Good effort in differentiating managers and leaders. However, you mentioned something I found rather interesting. You wrote… “When managers are promoted into leadership positions…” I find this interesting because you strke me as someone who would agree that leadership is not a position. Additionally, I’m wondering if you missed out on an opportunity to state that leadership is possible for all, even at the front-line management level. At what point do you make the distinction that someone holds a “leadership position?” In companies that dont have layers and layers of management, could not someone be a leader if he/she has people willing to follow that person? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying everyone’s a leader. I am saying everyone has the possibility of being a leader, regardless of where they are in the organization. I like your Drucker quote above (though I think it’s often misinterpreted), but I also believe he wrote that the difference between leaders and managers is that leaders have followers. That’s it. Viewing leadership through that lens, we see that there are those that lead and those that dont, regardless of being a manager or not. Thanks!

  3. Basically, Managers are the ones that everybody in the organization hates, while Leaders are the ones who are respected, begrudgingly or not

  4. Who defines what the right things are? Managers, shareholders, and
    employees will surely have a different definition of “right”

  5. Pete, that was an excellent observation concerning Linda’s comments on “manager” and “leaders.” Well done, because you mentioned the differences without being insensitive or overbearing, regarding your clarification of some of the important differences between the two terms. Actually, you saved me the trouble of providing the same commentary, in the same soft tone, of course. In my decades of Organizational Development Consultation, this is one of the most common issues I discover, that even some experienced executives are not aware of the two most important differences between “managers” and “leaders,” and those are “how they handle power” and “how they handle people.”

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