The Difference between Managers and Leaders
You often hear managers referred to as leaders, but the two terms are not synonymous. Managers can be leaders, but not always. And there are people who don’t have formal management positions who are leaders—sometimes unofficially—in their organizations. Understanding the difference can help managers, leaders, and their team members better understand how to be effective in their roles.
Managers and leaders differ in a number of dimensions. “Manager” is a title that conveys some organizational status, while “leader” is a role that anyone can have, regardless of organizational status. Managers typically focus on measuring and reporting value, rather than creating value themselves or enabling others to create value. Managers also have explicit circles of authority, while leaders can only influence people.
The status that the title of manager conveys can mean a variety of things, depending on the kind of management the person is involved in—for example, we have project, product, and people managers. All these titles imply supervision, but a manager can also be involved in training, career guidance, or doing the same work as those on the team—it depends on how the organization functions, or sometimes on how much the managers themselves want to take on.
Leadership is a function that need not be associated with a title. Anyone can step into the role of a leader, even without being explicitly appointed. For example, while some teams may have tech leads, others may have someone who fills that role but does not have explicit authority. Someone without a management title can still exhibit the qualities of a leader and help their team be more effective.
Leaders effect change by influence rather than command. People are more engaged, and thus more productive and effective, when they understand the value their work adds to a project, and leaders understand that. Management guru Tom DeMarco gives examples of this in his book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency and explains how the experience of leading volunteers helped inform his management style.
Managers and executives who are also leaders have the added power of being able to shape company culture. If you are a manager who wants to encourage innovation, you can do so by acknowledging that failure is a part or innovation, and reward appropriate levels of risk-taking—and start taking some risks yourself. These people are able to exert their influence as well as change policy or procedures.
Manager and leader are different roles, and there are differences between managing people and leading people. If you are either—or both—you have the opportunity to add significant value to your organization. By understanding this, you can realize the leadership potential for everyone on your team, not just the ones with titles.