What is the Difference Between a Leader and a Manager?

See also: Leadership Trait Theory

People often use the terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ synonymously. It is certainly possible to be both a leader and a manger, but are they actually the same thing? Probably not, since it is also possible to be a leader without being a manager, and a manager without being a leader. One suggestion is that ‘managers do things right, and leaders do the right thing’. However, it is unlikely to be that simple.

This page discusses the difference between managers and leaders. It suggests that there may be differences in position, responsibilities, approach, and purpose, and that all these matter.

Defining Leaders and Managers

There is no shortage of definitions of either leaders or managers. However, it is worth starting with the dictionary.

lead v.t. to show the way by going first: to precede: … to direct: to guide: to conduct

leader n. one who leads or goes first: a chief: the head of a party, expedition etc.

manage v.t. to control, to administer, be at the head of

manager n.one who manages; in an industrial firm or business, a person who deals with administration…one who organises other people’s doings.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

There is more about this, and some other definitions, on our pages What is a Leader? and Management Skills.

Similarities and Differences

There are, therefore, a number of similarities between leaders and managers. Certainly, in an organisational context, there may be little to choose between the two. Both may be ‘in charge’, at the head of an organisation.

However, there is no question that there are also some real distinctions between the two. Managers are very definitely linked to organisations. Leaders, however, can be present outside an organisational context: some of the great religious leaders of the world, for example, first inspired others without any organisational structure around them.

One possible distinction is that leaders direct and guide, and managers administer.

This distinction, which is inherent in the dictionary definitions, suggests that leaders show the way, and managers make it happen. Leaders therefore create an inspiring vision and people choose to follow them. Managers are then responsible for turning the vision into a plan of action that will take the organisation to the leader’s vision.

Linked to this is the idea that leaders have followers, and managers have people who report to them.

In other words, those working for a manager have little choice, but followership is a choice. This seems like a bit of a moot point in an organisational context, where employees have very little choice about whether they follow the head of the organisation.

  • Leadership is therefore about asking the questions ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ and empowering people (followers) by giving them the responsibility to do things right. Leaders work with people and their emotions.
  • Managers ask ‘how?’ and work mainly with processes, models and systems – things.

This distinction arose from the work of Warren Bennis, the professor at the University of Southern California who coined the phrase “Managers do things right but leaders do the right things”. He suggested that the distinction lies in how we think about things – if you think about doing something right, you tend to think about mechanisms or ‘how-to’s’ of the task at hand: this is what a manager does.

Doing the right thing, however, is a much more philosophical concept and makes us think about the future, about vision and dreams. This is a role of a leader.

Bennis identified some further distinctions:

A Manager A Leader
Administers Innovates
Maintains Develops
Focuses on systems and structure Focuses on people and emotions
Controls systems and people Inspires people
Accepts the way things are Challenges the way things are
Has a short-range view Has a long-range perspective
Manages tasks Leads people

Risky Leaders and Careful Managers?

Another distinction that is often drawn between managers and leaders is about the risks (or perceived risks) that either will take. The idea is that managers tend to be risk-averse, but leaders are more likely to take risks.

Leaders are concerned with fulfilling their vision and therefore consider it natural to encounter problems and barriers that must be overcome along the way. They are also often more comfortable with risk and therefore accept that the direction needed to reach their vision is not always the easiest path.

This means that:

  • Leaders try to turn problems into opportunities and will break rules to get things done.
  • Managers tend to be more focused on the status quo and will try to minimise risk.
See our page: Risk Management for more information.

There is no question that leaders tend to challenge the status quo, and that managers are more focused on retaining it. However, attitudes towards risk-taking have changed recently in the light of a number of corporate scandals. It may be that this is much less of a distinction than might previously have been the case.

Leadership, management and personal characteristics

The logical extension of these ideas is that there are differences in both what leaders and managers do, and what they are or have, their personal characteristics and skills. It is certainly true that leadership demands certain attributes and skills that management does not. For example, many leaders are very charismatic. They are also very good at creating inspiring visions.

However, managers also have skills that leaders do not necessarily have.  They are good at working well with people and getting the best out of them on an individual level. They can delegate work and motivate others.

Organisations need both leaders and managers

The roles of managers and leaders may often overlap. It may also not always be obvious who is a leader in any given situation.

However, there is no question that organisations need the ‘traditional’ skills of both leaders and managers to survive: the visionary, charismatic side, and the mundane organising skills.

These skills may exist in the same person, or they may require very different people at different times.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

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