Manager vs leader? Why you need to be both for your team’s success

Viesturs Abelis 7.03.2024
manager vs leader differences main banner

Manager vs leader – is there a difference between the two? After all, both are responsible for setting goals, making decisions, solving high-level problems, as well as communicating with and motivating their subordinates/followers. 

Want to get the most out of your time?
Try DeskTime for free!

Try free for 14 days · No credit card required.

By signing up, you agree to our terms and privacy policy.

Try DeskTime

But we have all encountered people who are great managers, yet bad leaders. Or vice versa – bad managers, but great leaders. Though we can intuitively tell the difference, it’s difficult to put your finger on it, namely, what exactly makes a great manager or leader? How are managers and leaders different? 

It doesn’t help that the concepts of leadership and management are often used interchangeably.

So, in this article we’ll take a look at key differences between managers and leaders, as well as dive into why both skillsets are important for getting the most out of your team in a business setting. 

two women showing difference between a manager and a leader

What is a leader and what is a manager? 

Are managers and leaders the same? No.

Defining leadership is harder than it may seem at first glance. Leadership can be tied to a formal position in a company, or it can be informally embodied by an individual. The qualities of what makes a great leader also vary between cultures – some value assertive individuals willing to quickly make difficult decisions, whereas others expect leaders to excel at consensus-building and to show humility. 

That said, for our day-to-day use, we can define a leader as someone who aligns and mobilizes a group of people toward a common purpose. In a business environment, the role of a leader also typically includes the defining of this purpose. Accordingly, when we talk of leadership, we usually mean three key things: setting a vision, motivating others to reach for this shared goal, and helping navigate through any high-level obstacles that may arise. 

When it comes to managers, however, the ambiguities are far fewer. Managers are those who manage, be it work, people, and/or processes. Their responsibilities are typically organizational, revolving around the optimal distribution of human and financial resources to achieve some intended result. 

two women demonstrating manager and leader difference

Manager vs leader – key differences

In terms of differences between a manager and a leader, we’re already seeing some divergence of responsibilities, aims, and approaches in the definitions above. Let’s flesh them out. 

Here are some manager vs leader examples that will help distinguish between management and leadership:

RoleFocus on managing tasks, processes, and resourcesFocus on inspiring, motivating, and setting direction
AuthorityTypically possess formal authority derived from positionMay or may not have formal authority, derives authority from influence
Approach to changeImplement change to achieve organizational goalsInitiate and drive change
Decision makingPrimarily involved in operational decisions within established frameworksOften involved in strategic decision-making, setting a vision
FocusEmphasize efficiency, effectiveness, and meeting objectivesEmphasize innovation, creativity, loyalty, and long-term vision
Time horizonShort-term orientation, focused on immediate goals and objectivesLong-term orientation, focused on future opportunities and challenges

Note that these are general descriptions – rather than criteria set in stone – that are typically associated with each role. After all, you can have great leaders operating in an established framework, and you can have great managers that don’t necessarily emphasize efficiency. This is part of the reason why the manager vs leader distinction is so hard to define. 

Man talking and can't tell if manager or leader

Why you need to be both for your team’s success

While, yes, we can distinguish between leadership and management, the reality is that the most effective individuals in those positions embody qualities of both roles, as managers and leaders in today’s companies find themselves wearing many hats. 

For instance, managers often have to assist in setting long-term visions, given their experience with the practicalities of the day-to-day. At the same time, leaders are expected to understand the direct short-term impact of high-level decisions. 

Similarly, motivating the team cannot be a responsibility that rests solely on the shoulders of a leader and something managers can safely ignore given their more intimate relationship with the workforce. A lofty speech once a quarter from the CEO can only do so much to energize you.

Need the motivation to sort out your day?

Start using time management software!

Learn more!

Understandably, it can get a bit much. Today’s roles are so multifaceted that the people in them may feel like they’re being pulled in all directions. Yet, very, very few people have the capacity to be both great leaders and great managers. 

That’s why it’s important to strike a balance and combine those characteristics that are most useful in the here and now and help drive results. If strategic planning is your forte, you can exhibit managerial and leadership qualities by helping the company with short- and long-term direction. If you have great people skills, you can kindle motivation for teams and the company at large. 

To sum up – you can be the leader/manager your company needs, without being a great leader/manager in the traditional sense. 

two women showing how managers and leaders are different

Most importantly – be the person your team needs you to be

A former manager of mine once told me that, in her position, the most important task of a manager was to protect their team from the higher ups. The bulk of her responsibilities revolved around managing and constantly pushing back against unrealistic expectations. In return, the team worked diligently, as we saw and appreciated her efforts.

Was she a great leader? A highly efficient manager? A friendly boss? Not necessarily, if we go by how we’ve disambiguated those things above. Yet, our team performed well.

There’s a reason why leadership is an entire field of academic study, namely, there is no one right way to be a leader or a manager. 

More often than not, it’s simply about being the person your team needs you to be and that person will be a mix of leader, manager, mentor, supporter, and whatever else all rolled into one role. 

That said, your key takeaway should be that it’s almost never only one of those things. 

Did you find this article useful? Give it a clap!


Psst! You can clap more than once if you really loved it 🙂