The Difference Between Leadership and Management

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If you cannot tell the difference between “Someone is leading me” and “Someone is managing me”, the situation may be more serious than you initially thought.

Even though leadership and management (as well as leaders and managers) are often used as interchangeable terms, the way these two approaches affect team culture, workflow process and overall results can prove to be contradictory.

There are 6 key differences between leadership and management:

Differences between leadership and management
Leadership...Management...
Is aboutLeading people by encouraging themJust a process of managing activities
Based onTrust of followersSubordinate control
Focused onLong-term goalsShort-term goals
Relies onPrinciples and guidelinesPolicies and procedures
Results inChangeStability
Strategy styleProactiveReactive

But what does that mean in practice? How is a leader different from a manager? Not all leaders will turn out to be good managers. Similarly, not all managers will prove to be good leaders. The fact is that there are many different traits which set these two groups apart.

Leader vs Manager

Let’s take a look at two software developer teams as an example. One is led by Mark the Manager, while the other is handled by Liam the Leader. Both teams consist of five members - experienced developers and experts in their areas. They work for the same company, in the same conditions and on very similar projects. The only difference is the man in charge. After a couple of months, the project was finished. The upper management decided to conduct an interview with both teams:

Mark the Manager

When his team was asked about Mark, they described him as rational, cool headed problem- solver. Team members said that he tended to be very goal-oriented, with a need to keep everything under control. Also, they considered him to be persistent, intelligent, analytical, and strong willed.

However, when it came to internal team collaboration, more than often, issues arose: he was issuing orders, rather than explaining what the benefit of a certain move was. Additionally, he stuck to procedures religiously, not allowing any room for maneuvering or application of alternative solutions.

When good ideas occurred to him, Mark would brief the team about the basics and leave them to it, expecting results without further involvement. If the idea worked out, he would present himself as a driving force behind innovation, taking all the credit in the eyes of the upper management.

If the idea turned out to be a failure, Mark the Manager would try to diminish “the damage” so he wouldn’t be blamed for it.

The worst thing, however, was his relationship with the team. Members often felt like he regarded them as nothing more than a resource - a replaceable set of tools. It was all about results and nothing about accomplishments. When asked if they would work for Mark again, most team members responded: “Only if I’m required to.”

Liam the Leader

Liam’s team was a bit different. They described their team leader as inspirational, eloquent and ingenious. Even though he has a vast knowledge of the industry, he was rather unintrusive: he relied on a constructive discussion to motivate his teammates to come up with a variety of different solutions, and then made sure that they accepted those ideas enthusiastically. Afterward, he would step out, magically reappearing to provide guidance when issues arise.

During communication with the members, he was mostly quiet. He spent a lot of time just listening, and occasionally asking questions which often contained pronoun “WE” rather than ”I” or “YOU”. When the room became silent, he would encourage further discussion with a constructive proposal, allowing the team to steal the show once again.

Sometimes, the ideas the team brought to the table were out of this world: too expensive, too risky, too unconventional. However, they were well thought out. On these occasions, Liam would say: “It makes a lot of sense in the long run. Go for it, and don’t bother yourselves with what might go wrong. I’ll explain everything to the upper management and try to get their approval.”

Finally, when the project was completed, Liam received an invitation to come to the head office for personal praise. He politely refused and requested that representative of the upper management comes to the team quarters - for it was a team effort after all.

Liam respected everybody, and everybody respected Liam. When asked if they would work for Liam again, most team members responded: “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things. - Warren G. Bennis

I am a leader, not a manager!

Are you sure? Can you ever be sure? Well, Vineet Nayar, came up with a method that allows an individual to determine if they made the transition from management to leadership. It consists of three simple tests (or questions) which should tell you where you stand on the matter.

Do I create, or just count value?

Managers will only count value. Sometimes, they will even disable those who add value, by asking for frequent and unnecessary status reports. Leaders, on the other hand, will add to the value team already creates by empowering them and leading them by example. If you want to find out where you belong, answer truthfully to the question below.

Your team has achieved their quarterly goals, and the pressure is suddenly off. You consider this to be:

  1. Mission accomplished
  2. The base which the team can build upon

If the answer is A, you focus on the bottom line - just as a manager would do. If you’ve selected B, you have your eyes on the horizon and a tendency to change the status quo - just like the true leader would do.

Do I influence, or just have power over people?

Contrary to the leader’s circles of influence which consists of followers, managers fill their circles of power with subordinates. To determine if you govern the circle of influence (like a leader), or circle of power (like a manager), simply count how many employees outside of your reporting hierarchy come to you for advice or help. The bigger the number the greater the influence.

Am I leading people or just managing work?

Influencing a team to accomplish a certain set of goals is not the same as keeping them under control. Sit your team-mates down for a chat, and pay close attention to the way they talk about work. If they are heavily oriented on current tasks - you are managing them; if on the other hand, they speak of vision, purpose and long term goals - you are well on your way to become a leader.

Behaviors of non-effective leadership

Is being a manager the same as being a non-effective leader? Well not really. Non-effective leaders constantly try to improve themselves, but despite their best efforts, they still tend to show some detrimental behavior. Behaviors like:

Complaining and gossiping

Constantly criticizing a fellow (team) leader says a lot about a person’s character. This habit can make you seem petty (at best), or even marking you as potentially destructive for the company’s team culture (the worst case scenario).

This type of behavior has two drawbacks: not only does it undermine leadership efforts of the leader you are criticizing, but you will most certainly earn a reputation of a gossipmonger as well. In the company of followers, it’s safe to say that none of these traits will help you achieve leadership status you crave for.

Volatility of emotions

True leader knows how to control and express their emotions positively and productively. They have social and self-awareness to know when any given situation requires restraint, silence or confrontation.

On the contrary, if the individual is unable to understand different personalities, there will always be friction between them and their team. Even if you read all the leadership manuals out there and invest incredible energy and resources into becoming a true leader, all your efforts will fall flat if you lack empathy.

Trying to be friends with everyone

Being torn between being liked and being effective is a tale as old as time, so it’s no wonder that many inexperienced leaders make this mistake. Having your team consider you as friend rather than their superior will make your life difficult in the long run.

As a team leader, you will have to make some difficult decisions, but many of your “friends” can dismiss them and interpret them as a “personal issues”. Therefore, keep your distance: be accessible but not overly engaged, and insist on work-related topics. Personal talk can wait until working hours are over.

Micromanaging - Poking and probing into everyone’s daily routine, tasks and duties can be beneficial in early stages of team forming, but at later stages this behavior becomes unacceptable. Also, micromanaging is exhausting: not only will you overexert yourself, but your team will feel like you don’t trust them (which can be a real problem since leadership is based on trust, after all).

Final words

Even though managers and leaders essentially have the same job, their different mindsets make their approaches radically different: while the manager will make sure that their team achieves desired results, the leader will make sure that they feel happy and inspired while doing it.

Managers will work hard to establish strict rules to conduct an efficient process, while leaders will break those rules if by doing so, they can improve the process. Finally, managers will satisfy with short term success while leaders will focus only on improvement and long term goals.


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