Leader vs. Manager: How Are They Different?

Leader vs. Manager: How Are They Different?

Have you ever advocated for pursuing a crazy idea? Motivated others around you when morale was low? If so, you’ve taken one step into the realm of leadership. But, likely, no one has added the word ‘leader’ to your job title.

Woman pointing to a wall of post its in an office setting

On the job, you’ve probably been encouraged to think like a manager. You’ve had to set goals, measure progress, hit deadlines, and employ soft skills to collaborate with others. But, if you’ve had success as a manager, you’ve also probably cultivated another set of skills. 

Have you ever advocated for pursuing a crazy idea? Motivated others around you when morale was low? If so, you’ve taken one step into the realm of leadership. But, likely, no one has added the word ‘leader’ to your job title. 

The distinction between a “leader” and a “manager” is subtle, but each category contains a unique set of skills. 

Managers often get a bad rap: In fact, a study conducted in 2021 at Cornell University found that the mission statements in major business schools have used fewer management-related words since the 1970s. Likewise, The Wall Street Journal’s use of the term “manager” has trended down, while the use of the phrase leader is trending up. 

In reality, to achieve a common goal organizations need both managers and leaders. 

Here’s how to tell the difference, and why you’ll need to glean the best from both. 

Leaders create the mission, managers hone the tools

Most great leaders possess a long-term vision. Take T. Keith Glennon, the first-ever NASA administrator, who took over the novel space program in the 1950s. As NASA writes, Glennon’s focus was to “emphasize long-range goals that would yield genuine scientific and technological results.” 

It was Glennon who first saw space science as a political opportunity. He helped position NASA as a critical way for the United States to prove supremacy over the Soviet Union, which drove decades of innovation and funding for space travel.

Still, people often require more than just vision to get the job done. NASA had that covered too. Hugh L. Dryden was a deputy administrator who oversaw the short term operations of NASA. He “threw himself into the intricacies of spaceflight” and made the tech that eventually served Glennon’s long-term goal.

In short, Glennon created the vision, but it was Dryden who created the tools for the job. The blend of that leadership and management gave us the space program we have today. 

Leaders inspire people, managers set them on the path to success 

On the basketball court, the effect of a good leader is infectious. They raise the game of everyone around them. 

Just look at the recent NCAA Women’s March Madness tournament: Aari McDonald, a senior at the University of Arizona is credited for leading her team to a championship appearance. As her freshman teammate told The New York Times: “She’s bringing the team with her.”

While an inspiring  leader can help bring out the best in someone during a critical moment, they can’t plant the seeds for success ahead of time. That is the role of a manager. A manager creates a system in which people can thrive, turning their inspiration into results when the time comes. 

In the case of the Arizona Wildcats, that manager is the team’s coach Adia Barnes.  Barnes is the one who creates the team’s organizational structure, and keeps them focused on smaller goals. As she explained, she asks her athletes to focus on how they can “be better every day.”

Barnes, the manager, created the engine, and MacDonald, the leader, provides the fuel. 

Leaders are dreamers, managers are realists (and sometimes critics) 

There can’t be leadership without inspiration, and no one has captured that better than Walt Disney, the pioneer of American film, animation and popular culture. Disney advocated for approaching new projects from three points of view: dreamer, realist, and critic. 

The dreamer thinks big, asks “what if” questions and encourages innovation. All of these are also essential leadership skills. 

The manager must be both realist and critic. The manager has to see all of the potential pitfalls and devise systems that work around them. Realists eventually play a key role in the decision making process required to turn a good idea into an actionable plan. 

If Disney’s model proved anything, it’s that a balance of three points of view are needed to create success. 

Leaders create purpose, managers maintain it 

Laszlo Block, the former head of HR at Google, has often spoken about the importance of finding meaning at work. A leader can help define what that purpose is, and embody it. Perhaps your mission is to better the world, or solve a critical problem, or develop a  brand new industry. The leader helps make these ideas concrete for the organization  at large. 

A manager, however, has to be each employee’s point-person. A manager will have to learn what motivates each individual by employing a high degree of emotional intelligence. A manager might ask an employee how they might change their job to better reflect their values, or take notice when an employee might be experiencing burnout. 

That might require regular-check ins with employees – one survey conducted at google showed that employees, especially millennials preferred feedback from a manager each month. 

The difference between leading people and managing people is ultimately quite subtle. 

Good managers make each person feel seen, and help them embody that higher purpose every day. The deal with day-to-day problems among their team members. 

Leaders, on the other hand, define a higher purpose for the whole organization, and inspire using more abstract ideas and goals. 

Ultimately, it might be easier to think of the skill sets used by leaders and managers as two different types of tools in your toolkit. They’re both equally powerful, but one tool may work better than another in a certain situation. 

If you’re looking for creative solutions, setting long-term goals, or brainstorming, it may be best to act like a leader. But when it comes time to execute those goals, it’s time to think like a manager. 

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