Manager vs Leader? Find out the differences.

If you are an individual contributor and starting the journey of leading or managing others, one of the first questions you might have is, what is a leader and manager?

On social networks, you have seen some comparisons between a leader’s and a manager’s traits on a reasonably regular basis. Most of the time, these probably were negative towards a manager. How can we be blamed? After all, we all probably had a manager that doesn’t bring the best memories. But is a manager required to be this person that everyone hates? What about a leader? Is a leader always like this “Hollywood star” kind of person that motivates everyone nearby?

This post will explore the key differences between these two profiles. And if and when they are both critical in an organization or team.

Let’s start with…

What is a leader?

Leadership is the ability of an individual to “lead”, influence, or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.

Contrary to many misconceptions, leadership skills can be learned and are applicable in many aspects of our personal lives.

Many leadership styles can be applicable in many contexts to get the best from their people. Leaders are usually not that concerned with the day-to-day operations but are more mid-, and long-term focused.

They excel in clear communication, particularly in communicating a clear vision and motivating people to deliver it. Typically leaders are less averse to risk, as we will see about managers, as a few failures are more acceptable if it leads to great results in the long term than if we are looking at failures happening in the short term.

In short, leaders are strong communicators, in particular, to explain a vision and influence people to take action to bring that vision to life.

What is a manager?

A manager is a person responsible for breaking an organization’s vision into a plan or goals, usually focused on the short or mid timeframe and allocating human and non-human resources to complete incremental tasks that are monitored daily to archive those milestones.

In large organizations, in particular the ones following a pyramid structure, there are usually three levels of managers:

  • Senior Managers – These are the board of directors and chief executive officer (CEO), and they provide direction to the middle managers.
  • Middle Managers -These are usually department, section or group managers. They provide direction to the lower managers.
  • Lower Managers – These are the managers that oversee and provide direction very closely to employees’ work.

This is not the case in smaller organizations. The manager can have a broader scope, and a single person can perform several roles until the organization reaches a particular stage in its growth journey.

What are the primary responsibilities of a manager?

There are many definitions of the primary responsibilities of a manager, but some are fundamental. Taking for example, Fayol, defines management as operating according to 5 essential functions:

  • Planning what needs to happen in the future and generating the action plans for action
  • Organizing (or staffing) to make sure that all human and nonhuman resources are available and allocated
  • Commanding (or leading) people to deliver what is planned
  • Coordinating to ensure that the organization’s goals are accomplished through the team(s) or individuals actions
  • Controlling that there is progress against the plans and that the team goals will be archived.

What are the primary skills of a manager?

  • behavioural – that includes conflict resolution, time management, stress management, patience, clear communication, stakeholder and relationships management
  • interpersonal – to communicate, delegate, motivate and mentor
  • technical – expertise in the domain that their teams work
  • leadership – to explain a vision and motivate and inspire people to execute that vision

In short, then a manager can be defined as someone responsible for the day-to-day activities are making progress towards the organization’s goals managers are for sure required in an organization as they make sure that the organization’s vision is implemented and that the people that are implementing that vision is looked after.

Manager vs Leader. Do traits compare to each other?

  • Vision vs goals
    • Leaders focus on defining and then inspiring and engaging people to turn that vision into reality.
    • Manager focus on setting, measuring and achieving goals
  • Change vs Stability
    • Leaders challenge the status quo as they look for the best ideas and often accept that the usual ways of working might not always be the best.
    • Managers prefer stability to risky approaches as they have more short-term objectives to archive.
  • Taking risks vs control risks
    • Leaders think more long term, and they accept that failure is often a step in the path to success and so they are less sensitive to risks.
    • Managers try to mitigate internal and external risks to archive small steps of progress towards their more short-term goals.
  • Long haul vs short-term
    • Leaders focus on a vision, which is rarely a short-term implementation.
    • Managers break a vision into smaller more achievable steps
  • Relationships vs processes
    • Leaders focus on people and build a relationship of trust and loyalty with the stakeholders they need to influence.
    • Managers give more importance to structures and systems that will support delivering their short-term goals.
  • Coach vs direct
    • Leaders support their people to find the best ways to solve problems without telling them what to do.
    • Managers usually tend to direct their people because of their more short-term scope.

Do we need leaders and managers in an organization?

In recent years for sure, the role of managers got a bit of discredit. I believe that one of the reasons is because of its association with the term “micromanagement”. A management style is where a manager excessively supervises and controls employees’ work and processes in addition to the reduced delegation and autonomy to make decisions. And the growing need for organizations to be innovative and pivot fast is an environment where employers typically need to be encouraged to be autonomous and creative instead of following rules.

Modern technology organizations typically require autonomous and willing employees to think by themselves, which is not necessarily true for other industries that don’t require this amount of innovation and are more repetitive tasks. This is the reason why managers need to adapt their management style to the context that they are managing. A more “leadership management” style is probably more appropriately applied in this case.

Therefore managers are still needed in modern technology organizations and organizations in general. Still, they need to adapt to the ways these organizations operate and the type of workforce they are managing.

Can you both be a leader and a manager?

Yes, and the overlap of traits between and leader and a manager gets smaller and smaller, especially because people are nowadays and, in particular, in creative jobs, fans of being directed without having the context of the broader vision. So a manager, to be successful, needs to also be more leader in the sense of being influential and convincing people to take action instead of directing their people to persuade them to support her/him to deliver the work necessary to archive the organization’s goals.

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External References:

Management | Wikipedia

Leadership | Wikipedia

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