Leadership vs Management: What’s the Difference? (The Real Answer)

Leadership vs Management - What’s the Difference

What’s the difference between a manager and a leader?

If you are like me, you’ve heard a lot of different explanations.  

You’ve also likely even seen a lot of those memes and cliches that try to tell you the difference between the two (that often show management as being super terrible and evil (the horrors).

Truth is, most of those aren’t very accurate – it’s just that many managers aren’t managing as they should (we’ll get to that later).

So what is the difference between leadership vs management? The best definition I’ve heard comes from Julie Zhuo’s book, The Making of a Manager. To paraphrase (and add some of my own), the difference is:

Leadership is a skill (or set of skills and behaviors and mentalities), and management is a position. You don’t need a position to be a leader, but you can’t be a great manager without also being a great leader.

Let’s dive into this a little bit more.

Leadership is a skill (or set of skills)

Leadership is a skill

Sometimes people think leadership is something you are born with or not. You either have the ability, or you don’t.

That’s just not true. Leadership is just a set of skills and mentalities and behaviors that anyone can learn and do if they want to.

I like how Simon Sinek said it (and I’m paraphrasing again): Leadership is like parenting. Anyone can be a parent, but not everyone wants to be a parent, and now everyone should be a parent. 

It’s a process and takes time to learn, just like any other skill.

You can think of it as a skill in the sense that playing basketball is a skill – it’s a “skill” made up of many other skills.

When you learn the skills and principles that make a great leader, you can be a great leader in time.

Also Read: 15 Essential Leadership Skills A Great Leader Must Have

You don’t have to have a position to be a leader

You can be a leader in any position. To understand that, let’s look at a better definition of leadership itself:

Leadership is guiding people through influence toward the accomplishment of a goal.

You will often hear people say “To me, leadership is..” o “Leadership is..” and they’ll fill in that blank with something leaders may do, such as solve problems. But those aren’t definitions of leadership.

Those are just good things you should do as a leader.

To lead, you guide people toward accomplishing something, and you do that through influence. It has to be influence, because, if you must force someone or use position, that’s not leading, that’s forcing.

You can influence those around you without being in a position, and you can lead people toward change or toward a goal through influence without being one that is “in charge”.

That’s why you can lead from any position. Anyone, including you, can build influence with people, cast a vision or goal or direction, and lead people toward that goal.

A great book about leading without authority is Keith Ferrazzi’s book (you may have guessed the title) Leading Without Authority.

Management is a position

Management is a position with set functions and duties (it may vary depending on the company and the level of management you are in).

Managers are generally over people – their job is no longer (at least to a degree, depending on the position) to perform themselves and get results themselves, their job is to now get results through others.

The main responsibilities of a manager (and I’m actually taking this list from a great book for new managers The First Time Manager) include hiring, firing, communicating, monitoring, training, planning, and evaluating.

Those are job duties within that position

You can’t be a great manager without also being a great leader

You can’t be a great manager without also being a great leader

To be a great manager, you also have to have leadership skills. You can be in a position of management without leadership skills, but you won’t do well as a manager (and that’s why we have all those cliches – too many managers don’t have or don’t know or don’t understand that also need to be great leaders).

Why do you need leadership skills?

Because you work with people! People aren’t tools or cogs. They aren’t processes to manage. They are people to lead.

In fact, Peter Drucker, the management guru, said, “One does not ‘manage’ people. The task is to lead people.”

To be a great manager, you need to be able to do the functions of management well, and part of that, and in addition to that, is knowing how to lead.

What about the cliches and memes?

Here’s the thing: management isn’t evil. It’s an important position. They may make us feel good and say “Oh yeah!” because of bad bosses we’ve had in the past, but, those clicheish manager vs leader infographics and posts miss the point, overgeneralize, and are in many ways plain wrong.

The reason we have the difference is that many managers aren’t trained in leadership skills (or are trained poorly). They may not even know the difference or know they need it.

The lack of managers who know how to lead is the reason for all of these cliches.

We need to get beyond this “manager vs leader” mentality and realize managers can be great leaders as well (and must be to be great managers). We need to train them in what great leadership looks like.

We need to get beyond the conventional wisdom such as focusing on one’s “leadership style” and into what good principles of leadership are.

Also Read: 15 Core Principles of Leadership Every Leader Should Follow

What about other explanations of leadership vs management?

It’s true, there are lots of explanations out there. Some say leadership is outward-looking and management is inward looking.

Some see leadership as the people on the top casting vision and managers are those helping people get to that vision. Leaders are the ones at the top, and managers are the ones at the bottom and middle areas.

Some say management is about processes.

And, there are truths to these. Managers in their job functions often do manage processes. They do lead their team toward the company’s vision and mission and goals.

The thing is, managers also can give direction and vision, and goals in their position as well to help meet those goals. It’s not one or the other. They still lead people toward those goals.

And leaders at the top, if they have people under them, still “manage” (or rather, lead, as we said) their people.

And those in positions at the top do likely cast more vision, but as we said, leadership isn’t a position. Anyone can lead from any position. Just because you are at the top doesn’t mean you are actually leading.

Some explain the differences through cliches, which may have some truth in them but are misconstrued.

One example is “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

The thing about sayings like this is you need both! You need to make sure you are going in the right direction, but you also need to make sure when you are going in the right direction, you are doing it right.

As a manager, your job is to make sure you and your team are doing the right thing, and then helping your people do it the best they can (the right way).

A lot of the lists that often explain leadership should be what managers do as well – they aren’t separate “roles”.

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Management and Leadership

I hope this explanation has helped you see the difference between managers vs leaders and that management, in itself, isn’t evil, it’s just that, too often, people have been doing it poorly.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments, make sure to let us know below.

Thanks for reading!

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