The Difference Between Leaders and Managers


Business Leaders vs. Managers

Often the words “leaders” and “managers” are considered interchangeable, or, at the very least, their responsibilities are sometimes confused. While many in the business world believe the two roles to be roughly the same, we take a different, more distinctive approach by defining their  unique differences and how each one impacts results.  Business leaders and managers occupy different roles, to say the least.

Defining Leaders and Managers

At the outset, we want to clarify that we see “leader” and “manager” as modes of thinking instead of a role, description, or title. One is not more important than another. Both are essential in achieving world-class results. A role description may well determine the amount of time an individual will spend in either mode.  Leaders and managers are both needed, but it’s important to understand their unique roles.

In a leadership mode of thinking, one is responsible for and is measured by the results that are achieved. In a manager mode of thinking, one is responsible for assuring tasks are completed and processes followed. Again, a role in the organization will determine the amount of time and energy spent in each mindset or mode. For instance, a person in a senior leadership position would spend more time in leader mode, whereas someone in charge of a smaller team or group would spend more time in manager mode.

As we flush this out further, think in terms of the “mindset” of each:

In Leadership Mode…You Innovate

A leader is always looking for ways to achieve the bigger picture—executing the vision. Envision a conductor of an orchestra. A conductor is responsible for the overall performance: keeping everyone together, ensuring each section of the orchestra performs their parts well, and shaping the phrasing so the music is played correctly. Likewise, a leader has the freedom to interpret and innovate, assuring that the right people are executing in the right environment, according to the right plan.

In Manager Mode…You Elevate

While leaders innovate, managers elevate—pushing the team to strive for excellence in every operation. They drive the belief that every process is open to evaluation and every system is geared towards continuous improvement. They identify roadblocks and are keenly aware of their individual team members’ strengths and weaknesses inside and out. They understand how to boost performance, heighten team effectiveness, and provide the solution to achieving the goals.

In Leadership Mode…You Embrace Change

Leaders pull the team to achieve more. Therefore, they embrace change. It’s only natural that leaders are constantly thinking of change; after all, how can things be improved if everything stays the same? It’s always a risk to try something new, but leaders are willing to take risks in the hopes of something better. It may mean pulling a highly-functioning team to the next level or correcting something that is dysfunctional in another. While in leadership mode they are always looking for new, out-of-the-box solutions. With this type of exponential thinking, they not only create change, they implement it in a variety of ways: through a new team member, a new phase, or a new strategy. Subsequently, leaders hold people accountable for the outcome.

In Manager Mode…You Focus on Systems and Structures

Sometimes teams don’t need a leader mindset, they need a manager mindset. At this point, they need someone to focus on the systems and structures in play to be able to meet those set goals. Understanding the steps and rules within a system is critical for a manager. If they know the process and how the team carries out that process they are able to account for problems that arise. Additionally, by focusing on the structure within their team, they can accurately regulate and direct all facets of the project from kickoff to evaluation, holding people accountable for specific tasks.

In Leadership Mode…You Inspire

Leaders also pull the team by inspiring them. They invigorate them to execute the vision by over-communicating the reason – WHY – it is worth working harder, taking more risks, and achieving more than they might imagine. Leaders listen to team members and encourage those that have new ideas and different views. Inspiration is not achieved by just saying encouraging words to team members, it takes an open environment, a coaching approach with plenty of helpful examples, and guidance. Along the way, a culture is built and teams become stronger.

In Manager Mode…You Maintain and Administer

One of the most important things a manager does is properly maintain all processes within their respective teams. In manager mode, they control and administer, allowing the organization to run at full capacity, efficiently and effectively.  

It’s Skill Combined with the “Art” of Being a Leader and Manager

Put simply, for an organization to achieve the desired results, managers ensure everything runs smoothly so that leaders can focus on innovation and growth.  Regardless of title, key influencers know that each mode is unique and critical. We’ve simply introduced some of the skills for each mode.

It takes awareness and intentionality for every person to practice the “art” of when it is appropriate to be a leader or manager, that is, learning how to spend the appropriate time during any given day, practicing each mode.

Leaders and managers are both needed in a business, but given your role in the organization, what percentage of your day should be in leader mode and what percentage of your day in manager mode?

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