When Leaders Aren’t Managers (and Vice Versa)

Raise a hand if you’ve ever swapped out the term “manager” for “leader.” We tend to treat these as interchangeable terms. In some cases, it’s accurate. There are skilled managers that are also competent leaders. And there are leaders who manage their teams well. Despite the potential overlap, however, managing and leading are not the same thing. Understanding the nuanced difference between the two can help you be better at both. 

Leadership is Not Linked to a Title

If you were asked to point to an organization’s leaders, no one would be surprised if you tapped the top of the org chart and indicated the C-Suite (or equivalent roles), while assigning the task of management to the mid-tier. This is a common assumption, but it’s not entirely accurate. Leaders can be found up and down the org chart. Some managers are natural leaders. Some leaders are found among your front line employees. Successful organizations recognize the difference and encourage both to excel wherever they are on the org chart. 

Inspire vs. Oversight

Leaders inspire. They see the big picture and they are able to communicate it in a way that encourages others to carry it out. Leaders can rally a consensus and cultivate excitement. Managers are more about making sure the team moves from idea to results. The leader develops a strategy to achieve the vision and the manager develops a plan of measurable, actionable steps in line with the strategy.  

People vs. Process

Leaders are focused on people. Managers are focused on the process. The leader, as noted above, is inspiring and guiding. They’re mentors. They invest time in getting to know their teams and understanding what motivates them to excel as they move together towards a shared vision. Managers are focused on the process. They are looking at the tangible steps required to get from point A to point B. They are looking at how and when things need to be done. They are making sure things are remaining on budget and that deadlines are met. 

Future vs. Today

Leaders have an eye on tomorrow. Remember, they’re casting vision. They see that big picture and they’re identifying the roadway to get there. Managers are keeping an eye on today. They are making sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. They are creating a turn-by-turn set of directions to make sure the organization gets down the right road to reach the goal the leader has laid out. 

Long-Term vs. Day-to-Day

Are you noticing a pattern yet? Leaders make decisions with the long-term in mind. They are strategic and future-focused. Managers consider operational impact and make decisions that will affect day-to-day operations. 

Influence vs. Position 

As we noted above, leadership is not necessarily linked to a specific title. You can find strong leaders up and down the org chart within a variety of different titles and positions. Leadership is about influence and the ability to inspire others. Leaders bring out the best in themselves and those they work with. Management, however, is linked to a specific title. Sure, that title could literally include the word “Manager,” but it could also be “Lead,” “Supervisor,” and a host of other things. The title brings with it a set of practical tasks and responsibilities. A manager’s power is derived from their position on the org chart.

Soft Skills vs. Hard/Technical Skills

Leadership skills tend to be the sort we refer to as “soft.” They tend to be interpersonal skills such as good communication, problem solving, time management, relationship building and strategic thinking. You can hone and develop your soft skills, but you’re going to be hard pressed to find an effective class. Some individuals innately excel at these skills and others work to develop them over time. 

Management skills are more technical or “hard.” These are the sort of skills you might take a class to improve in: planning and budgeting, task allocation, data analysis, languages, and others that can be measured and assessed. 


Some managers, some really good managers, are not natural leaders and that’s okay. They are great at what they are doing. They have the hard skills needed. They excel at developing and executing processes. They can keep the ball moving down the field and use their position to keep others focused on the tasks at hand. 

Some managers are also great leaders. In fact, they have climbed the corporate ladder because of their ability to inspire others and to see the big picture. Both versions of managers are valuable assets to the company – as are those non-titled leaders throughout your business.