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The real difference between a leader and a manager

Leadership and management go hand in hand, but are they the same thing? In fact, over 80% of organizations feel it’s important to offer leadership development. But finding a way to develop current leaders and managers means understanding how they connect, but how they also stand alone.

You can find many resources to develop leadership skills, but you can’t build a strong leader if you’re unclear about what it means to be a good one. Managers can lead, but not all managers lead well. Discover the difference between a leader and a manager with this guide.

Female business leader holds meeting
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?

The biggest thing to understand is that leading and managing aren’t synonymous. You can manage a team or project and be a poor leader. You can be a strong leader and not work in a management role.

Learning what it means to be a good leader can help you distinguish between leadership and management. Different skills are needed for each role, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Not everyone is cut out for management, but anyone can learn to be a good leader (no matter their role).

Let’s review a few of the top differences between these responsibilities. The more you learn about each, the less likely you are to compare them in the future.

Creating vision vs. creating goals

What’s a vision, and what does it have to do with leadership or management? Strong leaders can focus on intangibles like vision. They inspire team members and coworkers to new levels of business innovation.

Innovation sparks change beyond concrete goals. A manager works towards metrics and performance goals. They emphasize a project’s destination over the journey. A leader emphasizes takeaways along the journey and how they can change the business beyond a project’s scope.

Maintaining vs. changing

A leader vs. manager approach to innovation and vision means an emphasis on change vs. maintenance. A manager keeps things running smoothly, ensuring projects’ success. Their focus on performance leads them to focus on stability and consistency.

Leaders value change over maintenance. Their emphasis on vision lends them towards flexibility and not settling into a comfort zone. Stagnation motivates a strong leader to drive innovation.

Taking risks vs. managing risks

Another difference between a leader and a manager is their approach to risk. Because of their propensity for change, leaders are all about taking risks. Change and vision aren’t possible without taking risks.

Conversely, managers focus on managing risk. They care most about protecting existing projects and goals to provide consistent performance and predictable success. Managing risk means saying no to new ideas (even when you get excited about change).

Business leader talking to employees
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Short-term vs. long-term

Preventing and assessing risk means focusing on short-term goals. Vision is about the future, and so are innovative leaders. They know that change builds a future more than “playing it safe.”

Managers provide the needed stability for good leaders to take risks and plan for the long term. Without reliable management, there’s no room for leaders to innovate.

Systems vs. relationships

Good managers understand the value of relationships within operational systems and processes. Without a sense of leadership, managers will overlook the importance of fostering personal connections. Leaders understand the significance of personability.

The difference between a leader and a manager depends on what types of interactions they value. A bad manager treats employees as mere human resources, not team members who contribute to the business’s overall success. A strong leader values each individual contribution.

It’s time to stop the leader vs. manager comparison

With a better understanding of the difference between a leader and a manager, it’s time to stop comparing the two. This question is old hat and out of date. With roles and responsibilities transforming, it’s valuable to understand that leadership is a skill.

Although management can be trained, leadership must be developed. And leading teams or departments doesn’t mean you have to be in a managerial role. Ultimately, every company should have strong leaders across departments.

It’s important to remember the value of cultivating skills outside of role-specific training. Professional development isn’t just about the job anymore, but the people who carry out their roles for a company. The best leaders and managers work together to elevate workplace culture.

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Amanda Hoyer
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Degreed in Psychology and English, Amanda fell into copywriting and blogging when she discovered an innate gift for narrative…
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