The Difference Between a Leader and a Manager

Recently, on Twitter, I got into a disagreement with someone on the difference between the role of a manager and the role of a leader.  Those who know me, know that I love disagreement.  Agreeable disagreement causes us to examine our beliefs and it challenges us to make sure that we’re practicing what we preach.

I believe that there are very distinct differences between the role of a manager and the role of a leader.  But the roles should not be in conflict with each other.  Sustainable, high-performance organizations recognize that there is a symbiotic relationship between managers and leaders and they ensure that both are being utilized effectively.

I believe that we manage things (processes, procedures and outcomes) and we lead people (employees, customers and others).

 Here are examples of differences that I’ve identified (I’d love to hear yours in the comment section below):

A manager focuses on process and procedure, a leader focuses on people.

A manager administrates.  A leader envisions.

A manager maintains.  A leader develops.

A manager measures projections.  A leader projects measures.

A manager ensures that things are done right.  A leader ensures that the right things are being done.

A manager ensures that rules are followed (such as laws, regulations and policy).  A leader empowers and inspires innovation.

A manager deals in detail.  A leader in possibility.

A manager magnifies corporate policies, processes and procedures.  A leader magnifies the person, their capabilities and their purpose.

A manager deals in the probable.  A leader deals in the possible.

Managers are, by design, implementers of rules, organizers of details, and they ensure compliance.  Leaders are challengers of rules, casters of vision and they define purpose.

Followers look to managers for tasks, they look to leaders for purpose.  Followers look to leaders for a vision of their destination, they look to managers for the road map that tells them how to get there.  The most effective leaders employ managers who know how to build the best road map.

While it may seem that the manager and the leader cannot coexist with one another, it is imperative that they do.

Today, organizational cultures seem in constant flux between authoritarian environments (led by managers), and laissez faire environments (managed by leaders).  Both cultures are unbalanced, destructive and are unsustainable.

Zig Ziglar wrote that “the leader and the manager must communicate effectively and regularly so all the people understand the support each supplies to the other.”

Sustainable high-performance cultures are purpose-drivenLeaders lead and managers manage.  Both are in agreement and are bound by a common (often written) corporate code.  Their symbiotic relationship serves employees and organizations, well.

  • Ed Hill

    Ron, though I agree there are all of the distinct differences between Managers and Leaders that you point out. Hopefully, what you are saying is that great Managers and Leaders share the best traits of both… Great managers can not manage effectively without great leadership skills, any more than great leaders can lead effectively without great managerial skills.

    The goal is to continually work at improving the deficiencies we all have in one, the other, or both… To have an open mind, the willingness to learn new things, hard work and to have fun doing what we love, will usually accomplish both.

  • Ron Alvesteffer

    Hey Ed, thanks for your comment. I am actually not saying great Managers and Leaders share the best traits of both. They may share some but I have found there are distinct differences between the two. I am not saying one is better than the other. Both are valued and needed! They are just not the same and I think too many people confuse that. It takes people with different strengths, all working together, to build great teams!

  • Daniel Buhr

    Thank you, Ron, for sharing. You are spot on. What I say is, leadership isn’t found on an org chart. Yes, there are leaders there, but the org chart isn’t what makes them leaders. Here are some more of my thoughts on leadership & management:

  • Mike Hanlon

    A manager makes sure the cleanup on aisle 7 gets done quickly. A leader finds out why the shelves keep coming loose.

  • lelie

    a leader do things the way he sees them not the way they should be done and a manager do things by the book..

  • Md Asadul Islam

    Excellent explanation about the difference between the leaders and managers. thanks very much

  • Mohammad Shahpoor Safi

    Can a leader become manger or manager become a leader which one is posible?

  • LeadershipSkillsHQ

    Hi Ron, great insights you have shared in this article. In my opinion though, you cannot separate the functions of a leader and a manager. A person must be both a leader and a manager as well. A manager cannot be effective without leadership capabilities. Managers deal in detail how to go about things, however without leadership skills he cannot motivate his people to work for the common goal. Likewise, leaders must also be managers because in order to properly steer the organization to the right direction, he must at one point be aware of how the company operates. A leader cannot be one, without being a manager first.

  • arian

    the manager react to change and the leader caret the change in the project

  • Douglas Langer

    I think that a firm can operate very nicely with a great leader and no manager but he must have a good finance director. how is it that the most innovative firms seem to have less structure.. more vision. the management style would be participative or consultative. leadership knows that they do not know everything and have employees that are paid to know the best way to get things done.
    It seems to me that managers are short sighted or very short term orientated. leaders are looking for the long term have a wider vision. they can leave the details to the people who work in the field. Just a thought.

  • Michelle Palma

    In the spirit of agreeable disagreement, the definition of leader that I like best (from Brene Brown) is “anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people AND processes.” While there might be nuances between the actions of leading and managing as you describe above, people have the capacity for both sets of actions, which can vary by circumstance, regardless of titles like “leader” and “manager.”