The Difference Between Leadership and Management   

Manager. Leader. These may be two of the most commonly used terms in business—and they are frequently used interchangeably. While managers and leaders are both critical to a successful operation, each role has its own unique set of skills and behaviors.

All organizations need managers and leaders but not necessarily in the same capacity, or in the same person. Put simply: Managers manage tasks; leaders lead people.

Management controls or directs people and resources according to principles or values that have been established by the organization where they work. To produce the best results, managers oversee budgets, contracts, projects, and processes and make sure resources are well organized and applied.

Leaders set a new direction or vision for the people who follow them. They coach, guide, develop, and inspire the people around them, communicating their vision of what can be achieved and helping evolve strategies to realize that vision. They motivate people and negotiate for resources and other support to achieve their goals.

That said, good managers should strive to be good leaders, and good leaders often need management skills to be effective.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership refers to an individual's ability to influence, encourage, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Leadership skills are used to focus on a potential change by establishing direction and aligning, motivating, and inspiring people.

Some of the greatest leaders in history were figures who emboldened others through their own acts of bravery, loyalty, and enlightened thought. Think of Rosa Parks, referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement,” after she refused to leave her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955. Her actions and arrest led thousands of people in a bus boycott in order to protest bus segregation.

Who is a leader? While a manager might try to minimize risks, a leader convinces their followers that a risk is worth taking. A leader is someone who recognizes and celebrates accomplishments while using disappointments as learning opportunities. It is someone who moves forward confidently, focusing on a vision.

What Is Management? 

Most managers have a title suggesting authority and have employees who work for them in a chain of command. These working relationships are largely transactional. The manager directs the employees on their team and communicates priority tasks for the day or week, the subordinate executes those tasks, and the manager supervises and approves the work or sends it back.

Who is a manager? A manager does more than acquire and wield power. They use management skills to plan, build, and direct organizational systems in order to accomplish missions and goals. Managers generally make sure that day-to-day operations are running smoothly according to previously established parameters. Managers maintain the status quo. They ensure important work is done—and done well. They focus on meeting goals, often with a controlled approach.

Management is not leadership, but that doesn’t make it a lesser role in an organization. A manager can be successful without being an inspiration or paradigm-shifting thought leader. Similarly, a leader may be successful yet less skilled at managing people. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Steve Jobs, the tech genius behind Apple, who had a reputation for being a difficult boss.

Leadership vs. Management

A great leader is often a font of ideas and inspires colleagues to action but may not be good at the nitty-gritty that’s required to complete a project. Leadership is more about inspiring, motivating, and innovating.

Leadership qualities include the ability to appeal to colleagues based on integrity and determination. A leader’s magnetism and honesty can rally people around a cause. Their laser focus on a novel idea can inspire others. While the reward for performing well for a manager might be something transactional—such as a paycheck—the incentive offered by a leader can be more transformational; it may simply be the experience of working with that leader.

In a Forbes column about leadership, WebFX founder and president William Craig shared the following examples of leadership qualities and skills:

  • Understanding of what needs to change
  • Ability to stimulate intellect
  • Knack for encouraging participation
  • Talent for genuine communication
  • Loyalty, within reason
  • Sense of the bigger picture
  • Personal integrity
  • Inspiring personality

“In word, deed, and appearance, transformational leaders must exude confidence, kindness, openness, and rationality in equal measure,” Craig said.

Great managers, on the other hand, may not have large followings of inspired employees, but they are proficient at running projects and getting things done. They are successful coordinators, planners, and organizers. They know how to execute a complex project.

When it comes to project management, a good manager is able to set clear objectives, plan thoroughly, develop standard procedures and processes, monitor results against plans, and take corrective actions as needed.

According to The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management, a manager focuses on five separate tasks:

  • Set objectives. The manager creates goals for employees and decides what work needs to be done to achieve those goals.
  • Organize. The manager divides up the work and selects people to take on those tasks.
  • Motivate and communicate. The manager creates a team and makes decisions about pay, placement, and promotion and communicate roles and responsibilities clearly to all.
  • Measure. The manager sets targets and yardsticks and analyzes and communicates performance.
  • Develop people. An increasingly important management skill is the ability to nurture and develop the careers of employees—a company’s most important asset.

Ways to Improve Your Leadership and Management Skills

Want to sharpen your leadership skills? A panel of business and career coaches shared these tips in a Forbes article on the topic of leadership:

  • Let your company leadership know you want to join them.
  • Over perform, share results, and inspire your team to do the same.
  • Observe and exhibit the leadership qualities valued by your company.
  • Raise your visibility by representing the company: write articles, give talks, volunteer.
  • Take initiative and look for ways to fill existing gaps in leadership.
  • Help less experienced coworkers develop their skills.
  • Be a positive influence on your team.
  • Show that you can do the job you want by doing your current job well and what’s expected of the next job rung up from yours.

Interested in honing your management skills? Executive coach CJ McClanahan offered some guidance in Forbes:

  • Be empathetic. You need to be able to work with people from a variety of professional, educational, and cultural backgrounds who may have different communication styles, experiences, and work ethics.
  • Learn and listen from your employees. This helps you get the most out of those who work for you.
  • Set clear expectations. Make sure your employees know what they need to do to get a promotion and/or a pay increase. Help them set short- and long-term career goals.
  • Practice accountability. Have uncomfortable conversations with employees if business goals aren’t being achieved, and set new goals aimed at improvement. Ask workers how they think they can improve their performance.