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

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

Are you a leader or a manager? And what exactly is the difference? In this article, WOB UK's Fiona Hathorn explains why understanding the differences - and similarities - really matters if you want to progress your career.

Understanding leadership

Women on Boards has been running leadership programs for many years, with great success. This success is partly because we focus on the key skills a leader needs alongside covering that crucial promotion interview - how to be effective and sound like a leader to get promoted in the first place.

Leader vs Manager

As Margaret Byrne and Dr Grant Robertson of UGM Consulting say, how often do you hear the phrase “company leaders” being used to refer to senior managers? UGM believes this conflation implies that the terms are synonymous; leader equals manager. 

But there are a number of vital differences between leading and managing, even if the best managers are also capable leaders. 

Knowing the difference means we can apply each more effectively, and you are therefore more likely to be promoted and effective in your stretch promotion interviews. 

However, seeing them as competing notions is also unhelpful, according to Bryne and Robertson.

What do managers do?

Planning, leading, organising and controlling are currently considered the core management functions by many management texts. This is what managers do to achieve organisational goals.

From a broad perspective, planning involves goal setting. Organising relates to allocating resources. Leading deals with engaging people in work behaviours that achieve the identified goals. Controlling is about measuring and monitoring performance and standards, to ensure that efforts result in goal attainment.

Managers are appointed to their roles and are usually accountable for specific goals. They are also commonly in charge of others, known as subordinates. There is nothing ugly or rude about the term, according to UGM, why? Because, in short, it means that someone higher up ‘carries the can’. Managers are held to account for outcomes and actions.

What about leadership?

Initially, to lead was to go ahead or guide (a horse by the halter). Today, the commonly accepted definition of leadership is ‘influencing others towards a common goal’. 

Leading involves initiating needed action or taking charge by exercising various influencing behaviours. Do you know what the eight most common influencing behaviours are? Most people don't, which is why we cover this in our Leading Effective leadership course module.

Being able to influence effectively is vital so perfecting your knowledge of leadership and your influencing style, whilst understanding how to influence others is crucial if you are going to be successful in leading and getting to the C-Suite. 

Most important is that leadership occurs through influence. Unlike management, there is no formal authority.

Leaders only fill that role while they have followers. Leadership ceases when followers withdraw their support. In contrast, managers retain their role via formal appointment and specified accountabilities. They may not necessarily be accountable for people.

Leadership as a catalyst

In the knowledge economy, leadership is a valuable catalyst. Research shows that teams and organisations that exercise more leadership outperform those where less leadership is displayed. To maximise leadership benefits, you need to recognise that it’s different from management, that non-managers can lead and that managers can often usefully act in the follower role. 

Be a Better Manager, Better Leader

Things for you to consider:
  • If you are a manager, be very clear on what you are accountable for. While an EBIT target may be a core focus, think a little more broadly. You’ll likely also be responsible for intangibles such as customer satisfaction and employee engagement.
  • Have the accountability conversation with your own manager, with a view to you wanting to ‘own’ them! It’s likely to benefit both of you. An impact map, with line of sight connection between goals and accountabilities, can be a very powerful tool.
  • Be crystal clear about accountabilities with your people. Too often boundaries are unclear and this is when things slip through the cracks. Lack of clarity is a management problem! Take action to resolve it.
  • Act as a ‘leader’ as often as possible. People generally prefer the choice to follow over directives to comply. Leverage influence instead of formal authority when you can. The latter is always available as a last resort – exercise it when you need to.
  • Recognise that no leader is ‘complete’ – the world is too complex! Know when the time is right to allow, even encourage, others to step up. Then step back and act as an effective follower in the context. Remember though, taking a follower role in some contexts doesn’t absolve you of formal managerial accountability.
Find out more about our Personal Career Management: Enabling Women in Leadership program HERE