What Separates a Leader from a Manager?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Have you ever heard the terms manager and leader used interchangeably? It's not uncommon for companies to call their management level “the leadership team.” It's that kind of thinking that waters down the effectiveness of real leaders in an organization. In fact, leaders can reside in any level of an organization, while not every manager is really a “leader.”

So, what is the distinction between leaders and managers? The key is found in the words themselves. Leaders lead a group of people towards a common goal. Managers manage tasks or projects. Keeping this in mind, you can influence your organization as a “leader,” regardless of whether you are a manager or not.

A recent post from the Harvard Business Review reminds us how leaders act and influence differently than managers:

  • Creating Value vs. Counting Value: Managers manage their tasks by tracking and counting widgets or productivity—they try and improve results by cutting costs or increasing throughput. Leaders are thought leaders, dealing with breakthrough ideas, rallying support, and transforming businesses.
  • Circles of Power vs. Circles of Influence: Take a look at where you are able to affect change in ideas or actions. Managers are typically able to change the direction of their own direct reports–the people for whom they write performance appraisals and give raises. Leaders are able to rally people to their cause–peers, subordinates, and even managers and executives. Leaders can get people across business units to work together toward a common goal.
  • Managing Work vs. Leading People: There's a big difference between telling people what to do and how to do it versus creating consensus and influencing people to create positive momentum. Think of it this way–are you telling people what to do, or are you setting a vision that people want to help fulfill?

This is not to say that managers are not capable of being leaders. Many managers are in their roles because they have proven their ability to influence and lead cross-functional teams.

But creating and maintaining a clear distinction between the words “manager” and “leader” is very useful. Measure how you're doing using the three traits listed above, and don't wait until you get a promotion to manager to start acting like a leader.

A more effective career path is to begin acting like a leader in your current role– develop relationships, hone your communications skills, and continue building your support network. Read books and blogs on the habits of effective leaders and put that advice into practice. That way, when a promotion is available, you will have already proven yourself as “more than a manager” and have a leg up on other candidates.


photo credit: Hamed Saber via photopin cc

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