What Leaders and Managers Do Differently

What Leaders and Managers Do Differently

“Like a boss” is a catchphrase in vogue in pop culture and the object of countless memes. But while being a boss confers one with authority, understanding the differences between those in charge may not always be clear.

Did you know that leadership and management are not the same, although they are often connected and complementary?

And the distinction can get even fuzzier. In some cases, a leader can successfully manage and a manager can successfully lead. So what are the key differences between each role? Perhaps the biggest distinction is how leaders and managers motivate others to work.

A leader develops ideas and principles and inspires others to share his or her vision. By contrast, managers administer and embrace the status quo.

While some managers may be visionary, it isn’t an expectation or an essential job requirement. Effective leaders have the ability to successfully communicate their vision or innovation and get others to understand, embrace and support their cause. 

And often that vision starts by asking one simple yet overwhelming question: Why? Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” explains in his popular TEDx Talk, that “By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?” 

In other words, a leader creates a vision rooted in a core purpose and by inspiring others, pulls them into that vision. Two great examples are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership consisted of the ability to see the big picture and lead by example, while inspiring, influencing, and empowering others who share their vision toward success.

Management tends to focus on the “how” and “when.” It is detail-oriented and preoccupied with the bottom line. It requires control of people and processes to accomplish a goal. Leaders can sometimes get more of what they want when they use less power.

Another critical distinction is more apparent. A manager has “followers” because they are subordinates who feel obligated to do so. But the individuals who follow a leader tend to do so voluntarily because they are inspired. A leader is invested in the success of these individuals and they are invested in the success of the organization.

Warren Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies, offers the following distinctions between what constitutes a manager and a leader:

  • Managers do things right while leaders do the right thing.
  • Managers administer; leaders innovate.
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers focus on systems; leaders focus on people.
  • Managers maintain; leaders develop.
  • Managers imitate; leaders originate.
  • Managers emulate the classic good soldier; leaders are their own person.
  • Managers copy; leaders show originality.
  • Managers rely on control; leaders inspire trust.
  • Managers have short-term perspective; leaders have long-term perspective.
  • Managers accept the status-quo; leaders challenge it. For the aspiring boss, knowing the difference between leadership and management provides a head start for strengthening the skills, traits, talent and teamwork needed to guide you toward your coveted role.


A manager can tell you what he expects of you. A leader, though, awakens your own expectations

Patricia Neal (adapted)


This article was originally published in The Washington Post on Sunday, 27 Nov 2016.

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