a banner with the text "Manager or Leader? What is the difference? Why does it matter?" accompanied by one woman pointing to data on a dashboard and another woman an illustration of a woman walking as she holds a yellow flag

by Elisabeth White | 2 Minute Read

a woman pointing to data on a dashboard with a big circle behind them

Manager

A person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc. or of a part, division, or phase of it.
– dictionary.com

an illustration of a woman walking as she holds a yellow flag with a big circle behind them

Leader

The person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.
– dictionary.com

an illustration split in half with the top half having a rock labeled "work," four people pulling the rock with a rope, and someone at the front also pulling the rope and giving direction. The bottom half has someone with a clipboard and four people pulling a rock labeled "work" with a rope

Although the terms “Manager” and “Leader” are often used interchangeably, there are some significant differences between the roles that are worth illuminating and discussing. In this blog, I’ll outline these differences and provide a few questions for self-reflection.

one circle has people having a meeting with both in-person and virtual attendees. the second circle has someone with a lightbulb on top of their headAt the 2019 HBS Online Connext conference, Professors Nancy Koehn and Joe Fuller provided a powerful visualization of these differences. In short, Koehn and Fuller explained that Management is usually focused on bringing individuals together to accomplish a common purpose or goal on a regular basis while Leadership creates an environment where people are empowered to realize a vision or outcome. Manager is also used more commonly as a title whereas Leader refers to the qualities of a person. It is possible to be considered both, but knowing the characteristic differences, and when to lean into each role is important.

Although it’s easy to see parallels in these roles, Leadership paves the way for self-organization and self-direction where Management does not. In some instances, a Manager is needed to ensure continuity and consistency – to administer and maintain. In other instances, a Leader is needed to inspire creativity and experimentation - to innovate and develop. Understanding the needs of the team and the desired outcomes that need to be achieved are critical factors for knowing which role is needed and when.

Self-reflecting on your team, which characteristics would produce the best environment for delivery excellence? Do you need to adjust your style based on what you’re trying to accomplish? Is the team ultimately setup for success? Why, or why not?

Below is a quick reference to see and identify the key characteristic differences between a Manager and Leader. Use the information below to reflect on which role best supports your team and the desired outcomes you’re driving toward:

a woman pointing to data on a dashboard with a big circle behind them

Manager

  • Create Goals
  • Direct
  • Build Systems or Processes
  • Delegate
  • Maintain Status Quo
  • Control Risk
  • Avoid Failure
  • Lean into Existing/Proven Skillsets
an illustration of a woman walking as she holds a yellow flag with a big circle behind them

Leader

  • Create Vision
  • Coach
  • Build Relationships
  • Empower
  • Believe in Experimentation
  • Take Risks
  • Embrace Failure
  • Seek Growth Opportunities

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