What separates a true leader from the ranks of lesser remarkable managers? And how can you be sure when you’ve shifted from one side to the other — going in either direction?
To answer this, it’s best to take the titles of leader and manager and reframe them from nouns into verbs. What does leading people look like, versus simply managing them? Below, we’ve broken down a few of the biggest differences.
It may sound overly basic, but one of the most significant differentiators between the two is that while managers are focused on managing the tasks and workflows at hand, leaders are focused on the people performing those tasks. To be sure, you can’t be a leader if your day is solely spent drumming up ways to inspire people (in fact, if you identify too closely with the idea of “inspiring” others as a company leader, it can be a problem). But while a manager is solely occupied with the “what” and the “how,” a leader also places just as much emphasis on the “who.”
For things to work out, of course, the leader’s vision shouldn’t be too different from the company’s. But leaders don’t simply parrot other people’s goals at the top. They have a deep understanding of why certain goals matter, and they’re ready to add their own vision and individual approach to achieving those goals. Leaders, in other words, believe in what they’re working toward. Managers, high performing as they may be, might not.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Vineet Nayar described the difference as such:
“Just as managers have subordinates and leaders have followers, managers create circles of power while leaders create circles of influence. The quickest way to figure out which of the two you’re doing is to count the number of people outside your reporting hierarchy who come to you for advice. The more that do, the more likely it is that you are perceived to be a leader.”
One of the simplest ways to tell leaders and managers apart is in the way they respond to times of extreme uncertainty and change. A manager may seem like a reasonably strong leader when all is going relatively according to plan. Introduce an unexpected, significant change, though, and it’s leaders who are best equipped to direct their teams through choppy waters.
Risk management is a guiding principle for many managers. When approaching a company goal or objective, they’re often trying to maximize on returns while introducing the lowest possible amount of risks. And if your company culture isn’t one that allows much room for mistakes, this can be especially common. Leaders, meanwhile, have spent time calculating not how best to avoid or minimize risks, but which are the right ones to take.
Managers delegate. They set assignments and deadlines, and they instruct their direct reports on how best to reach them. It’s often a one-direction approach to completing tasks; I tell you what to do, and you do it. Leaders avoid being overly prescriptive. They understand people’s strengths and abilities, and they encourage their team members in the application of those strengths.
As is the case with their ability to minimize risks, a good manager should be able to forecast where and when their team will encounter roadblocks. A good leader, meanwhile, doesn’t ignore the potential for problems altogether, but they’re better able to reframe those problems as opportunities. “This didn’t work,” a manager may determine. “Because this didn’t work, it helped us figure out this,” a leader would instead think.
Management relies on structure, order and traditional power systems to keep people accountable and generating the necessary outcomes. A leader doesn’t have to insist on order for the job to get done, though. Sure, some accountability will still be needed; it isn’t about a lack of roadmaps or a lack of consequences altogether. But a leader has already motivated their team to do their best, with or without the potential for discipline. They can trust that their workers will perform instead.
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