Being an excellent manager doesn’t make someone a strong leader. We’ve all run into someone who uses the titles interchangeably, and it can be frustrating.
Knowing the difference leadership vs management helps you understand your role in your organization. By recognizing the difference, you can sharpen your abilities so that you can reach your fullest potential. Knowing what separates managers and leaders can also help you figure out how to achieve the best balance of leadership and management qualities.
In this article, I will explore the similarities and differences between leaders and managers, and help you figure out how to get the best of both worlds.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What are leadership and management?
A leader’s power comes from their ability to get buy-in from others. They use their influence to challenge norms and guide innovation. As Drucker implies, leaders sometimes bend the rules to spur change. Peter Drucker aptly puts it:1
“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. To gain followers requires influence but doesn’t exclude the lack of integrity in achieving this.”
Managers ensure that employees conform to standards and adhere to policies. They make sure that the goals of their leaders are carried out. They are capable and responsible, but their contribution to organizations is strictly by-the book.2
Key differences between leadership and management
Focus on goals and vision vs. Focus on tasks
Leaders are oriented toward their company’s vision and goals. They look at the big picture and come up with new ways to actualize their vision.3 When leaders try new things, they always tie their ideas back to the company’s mission.
Managers are task-masters. While they may care about an organization’s vision, their job is to stick to policy. Managers carry out the big ideas for their organization’s leaders.
Sell it vs. Tell it
Since leaders are always on the cusp of innovation, they have to convince others that their ideas are worthwhile. Remember, they gain their authority by encouraging others to buy into their line of thinking.
On the other hand, managers don’t have to sell an idea because their role is to enforce policies. If someone steps out of line, they can fall back on procedures. Employees do as their managers tell them.
Take risks vs. Minimize risks
Anytime you try something new, you must take a risk. Leaders take risks by default because they often push for change.
Managers are put in place to keep risks to a minimum. They make sure that workers are doing what they’re supposed to do in the manner the company tells them to. When problems arise, a manager may take the problem to leadership to amend policies.
Encourage vs. Instruct
The lines between management and leadership blur here depending on how the manager approaches their duties. Ultimately, leaders offer encouragement to employees to think outside the box and see the big picture.
Managers usually have clear guidelines about different aspects of their workplace. They may provide encouragement, but their main job is to tell you how things are supposed to be done. They’re the person you turn to when you want to figure out the best way to do your job.
Go against the grain vs. Go with the flow
Leaders need to challenge the status quo or else their organization risks stagnation.4 They try new things to see if they can be more effective. They work to align company policies with the company’s vision.
Managers, on the other hand, maintain the status quo. They’re doing their best work when they are enforcing the guidelines set out by the leaders.
Motivate vs. Approve
When you try new things, your risk of failing increases. Leaders must be motivated, and they’re great at keeping others motivated. They tie everything they do back to the company’s vision. When a company has a strong vision, a leader can use it as a rallying point for inspiring employees.
When you’re managing people, your main objective is to decide if something passes muster. Managers look at their subordinates’ actions and determine whether they meet the standards set out by the company.
Break the rules vs. Follow the rules
Leaders have to play fast and loose with the rules to get ahead. Rules are often too rigid to allow for innovation, which means that leaders frequently bend them. When a company or organization is badly broken, leaders may disregard the rules entirely.
If a manager wants to keep their job, they stick to the strategies set out by superiors. Bending and breaking the rules undermines their position, which can weaken the company.
Inspire trust vs. Expect control
When someone is guiding you through uncharted territory, you must have a certain level of trust in them. A strong leader is excellent at inspiring trust to take people to places they’ve never been.
Managers’ authority rests in their ability to have control outright. You don’t have to like or trust your manager to do what you’re told. Managers expect and need control to do their job well.
Foster ideas vs. Assign tasks
Leaders thrive on making improvements by trying new things. They foster new ideas and free thinking because this supports their aims. They know that if they can encourage more people to think outside the box, the collective brainpower of the group will drive more innovation.
Managers can’t encourage free thinking because they wouldn’t be able to fulfill company expectations. Telling people what to do is the only way they can ensure that employees will do what they’re supposed to in the way they’re supposed to do it.
Is one better than the other?
As you may have noted, there are some stark differences between leaders and managers, but leadership and management are complementary.
Leaders are risk-taking, innovating, game-changers. Managers are by-the-book maintainers of the status quo. That doesn’t mean that it’s better to be one or the other.
Companies need managers and leaders to run smoothly. A lack of management puts organizations at risk for falling out of compliance and not meeting goals. A lack of leadership leads to a stagnant and uninspired workforce.
Leaders and managers may exist at opposite ends of a spectrum when it comes to authority, but they’re on the same team. A leader can have a grand vision, but without managers to carry it out, the vision won’t be realized. Managers have to adhere to standards, but if they aren’t inspired by leadership, they won’t be able to share their vision with the workforce.
How to strike the balance between leadership and management
There’s a happy medium between leadership and management. In some cases, you do need someone to perform as strictly one or the other. The best authority figures know when to apply leadership and management to greater and lesser degrees.
When to use leadership skills:
The degree to which you’re able to use leadership skills depends on your workforce and your company’s way of operating. If your members are clear about the team’s vision and goals, they’re more likely to be inspired by a leader.
For an authority figure to lean more toward leadership, they need to be able to trust that workers are already fully aware of and compliant with company policies. If you constantly have to babysit your team members to perform basic tasks, it’s going to be difficult to encourage free thinking.
When a team is made up of dedicated individuals who understand their roles, you have more leeway. They’ll be able to handle innovation and creativity while keeping up with their responsibilities. When a leader can enter into a dialogue with workers about company policies, they can come up with new ideas together.
When to take on the role of a manager:
When you’re new on the job, you need somebody to tell you how things should be done. Managers are an absolute necessity when your team members are new. They can help workers figure out how to do their jobs in the most efficient way possible.
Managers are also excellent at figuring out how much employees are capable of. They know that giving them too many responsibilities can have a negative impact on their performance and morale. They safeguard employee productivity by understanding how each person works and responds to stress.
Organizations always need managers to help employees with uncertainties that they may have about their work. The manager is the person who can show you where to find a procedure in the handbook. They take the mystery out of the work so that employees can meet company expectations.
Running a company made only of leaders would be like herding cats. Having managers run the show means that you’ll get a lot done, but you’ll never get better. Organizations need managers and leaders to reach their full potential. You can’t have one without the other.