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Leader vs. Manager: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Woman seated at a table speaking to adult SNU students.

The terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably. Both can help drive positive outcomes for an organization, but there are key distinctions between each role.Effective managers might not be good leaders, and great leaders may not be managers—by title or skill set. And then, of course, some people excel in both roles.

Ideally, leaders will exist throughout your organization—in leadership, in management, and even in non-leadership positions. Understanding how to be a good leader and how it is different from being a manager will go a long way in developing your skills and helping you become a high-demand professional for today’s businesses.


What Is a Manager? 

Managers sometimes get a bad rap as pencil pushers and taskmasters who are only concerned with results and don’t care about their reports. This characterization is often unfair because many managers know that supporting their employees and earning their trust increases the likelihood of success.

Managers may have many performance-dependent responsibilities, including:

  • Budgeting
  • Hiring and staffing
  • Assuring quality 
  • Planning for the long-term 
  • Improving processes and increasing efficiency
  • Meeting and exceeding department and organizational goals

Building and nurturing relationships with employees have also become essential skills for the modern manager. Part of the challenge organizations face is that employees work hard and earn their way into a managerial position, but have no training on handling interpersonal issues. They may be great at setting a budget, but they struggle with supporting a worker who’s having a bad day.

Most managers report to someone else and are accountable for meeting goals and benchmarks. Some are great at balancing this accountability with the needs of their reports, but others lose sight of one responsibility or the other. You have likely had bosses whose moods could swing wildly depending on how things were going. The best managers know how to get the job done while also giving employees what they need to do their jobs well.

The right adult education program can help you gain management experience and nurture strong leadership skills. 


What Is a Leader? 

History is full of leaders who didn’t command troops, manage a company or have direct reports. What they did was inspire and empower others, execute their vision or the vision of their organization and set an example for others to follow.

To borrow an example from the sports world, Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter was considered the face of the New York Yankees throughout his career. He wasn’t a manager or owner, and there were years when he wasn’t even the Yankees’ best player. But he brought energy and enthusiasm to everything he did and made the most of his skills to inspire not only his teammates, but also millions of young baseball players who looked up to him.

In the business world, you can find leaders at every organizational level. Consider these examples:

  • An employee who steps up to help a coworker in need might be a leader.
  • A rank-and-file worker who stays cool under pressure and solves every crisis — and gets others to help execute the solution — might be a leader. 
  • An innovator who comes up with a new product or service and shares that vision with the rest of the organization might be a leader.
  • A manager who achieves incredible success and credits their team for that success might be a leader.
  • A CEO who isn’t afraid to make tough decisions — even at the risk of their job — might be a leader.

Often, leaders are agents of change. People look to them for guidance—and not just for everyday choices, but also important, overarching decisions. And leadership is something that is earned, not given. Employees want to follow their leaders, whereas a manager might simply be obeyed.


Leader vs. Manager: What’s the Difference?

The differences between leaders and managers can be subtle and difficult to quantify. Moreover, plenty of managers are seen as leaders, and many leaders are solid managers. Being great in both roles is a terrific goal, but knowing what each role entails is crucial to reaching that goal.

Managers must be tactical and focused on the bottom line. There are plenty of ways to get there — for example, fully supporting and respecting employees creates an environment in which they can do their best work. However, the organization relies on a manager to achieve success, and failing to do so can lead to negative consequences for the manager.

Leaders must be inspirational and empowering, but they can’t lose sight of their other responsibilities. The most rah-rah employee may be in trouble if their enthusiasm doesn’t resonate with coworkers or lead to lasting change. Being a leader is a massive responsibility, and if it isn’t handled well, the organization may suffer.

Another key distinction is that managers often are focused on day-to-day needs, whereas leaders are focused on the bigger picture. There’s nothing wrong with this difference—the short term and the long term are equally important. And, again, being focused on both is possible with managers who are also leaders and vice versa. 


Strategies for Cultivating Leadership Skills 

Some people have a knack for leading and inspiring others. But leadership is a skill, and just like other skills, practice and education can help you gain mastery. Some simple exercises you can do to flex your leadership muscle include: 

  • Cultivate empathy for others: Leaders know that the needs of their coworkers often supersede their own needs, so they focus on others’ growth, development and well-being. In this way, leaders exist to serve the people they are supporting, not the other way around. There’s even a term for this: servant leadership.
  • Keep an eye toward the future: Don’t get bogged down in tiny, meaningless tasks. Instead, consider the jobs that will help you, your team and your organization achieve a brighter tomorrow. 
  • Nurture critical thinking: Leaders aren’t afraid to address problems when they see them. Rather than simply accepting direction from a superior, consider how you might foster positive change. Also, be willing to accept that your way might not be best and consider other suggestions.
  • Seek advice and direction: Ask your managers what you can do to help the organization succeed.
  • Listen to everyone: Leaders find ways to help everyone succeed. Moreover, they know that healthy discussion and input of ideas often yield the best results. Include coworkers and reports in important decisions, and be sure to give them credit where credit is due.
  • Be willing to admit when you are wrong: No one has all the information or answers. Leaders understand that they don’t know everything. 

Leadership is natural for some people, but must be nurtured for others. The same holds true for management. SNU can help you develop and hone these skills with our master of business administration, master of science in management and master of leadership programs. Not only will you gain insight into the theoretical foundations of leadership and master the skills needed to solve everyday challenges, but for those in the master of leadership program you will also earn the renowned Zig Ziglar Legacy Certification. For those still looking to complete their bachelor's degree, check out our business administration and the organizational leadership programs.

SNU caters to adult learners with flexible schedules, online learning and support when you need it. The Ultimate Career Roadmap for MBA Graduates is a great way to figure out if pursuing an MBA is the right choice for you. Click here to download the guide

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