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Recently a reader asked me a question about leadership vs. management, and the main differences. Given that I run a site called Thoughtful Leader, I thought I should have a position on this.

I’ve thought about leadership vs. management a lot, and in my view, there isn’t a single “right” answer. There are aspects of management that cross into the leadership domain, as well as the other way around.

Leadership vs. Management: What’s the Difference and Who Cares?

When thinking about this topic, the question did arise: Who cares about leadership vs. management? I mean, does it really matter what the difference is?

If you are a “Team Leader” or an “Operations Manager” does that mean you are one or the other? Not really.

If you don’t have a leadership or management title at all – can you still lead things? Of course you can.

In this article, I want to highlight some of the main differences I see in the leadership vs. management debate.

I’ll also cover ways in which you can add more leadership aspects to your role, if you’d like to be more “leader” and less “manager”.

The Management Stigma

Leadership vs. Management - supermanWhat I’ve noticed about traditional “Management” is that it often carries a negative stigma.

Middle-Managers are one group often perceived as providing little value. In fact, I often hear about managers being considered to be a massive pain in many organisations.

Leaders, on the other hand, are held in high regard. When people talk about leaders, they often speak in awe about people like Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Jacinda Ardern.

You don’t really hear about famous “managers” but you instead hear these people referred to as leaders.

There is nothing wrong with being a manager. But being a leader sounds so much cooler and better for your career, doesn’t it?

Leadership vs. Management: It’s All About Intent

For me, the leadership vs. management question is answered when we look at the intent behind both terms. When we take the lead, we are:

  • At the front, showing the way.
  • Doing new things – going to places where nobody has gone before.
  • Making change, instead of keeping things the same.

When we manage, we:

  • Make sure everything is under control.
  • Want to see stability and reduced risk.
  • Look at metrics to monitor and measure success.

Leading is about putting ourselves out there and carving a path. Management is more transactional, about stability, smooth operations and cutting out risk.

Obviously many roles will involve aspects from both of these lists. For example, if you’re leading a major program of work, you need to do new things and implement change, but you can’t just blow your budget and take silly risks. These more transactional elements still matter.

Next, I’ll look at some of the biggest differences I see in leadership vs. management. If you want to be more leader and less manager, I’ll also discuss some ways you can achieve that too!

Leadership vs. Management #1: Leaders Strive for Change

While a Manager is often required to provide and monitor a stable operating environment, a leader is more likely required to implement significant change.

This change could be anything from taking over a new company to releasing a new product, or implementing a new computer system to improve the business.

It might even be that you’re setting up a new public speaking club within your organisation. This might not sound like “leadership”, but it is, because you’re striving to create something new where there was nothing.

Leaders make change

The last scenario is an example of not needing a fancy job title to be a leader. There are often many of these opportunities in our workplaces, if you look out for them.

What this means is that leaders need to get comfortable dealing with uncertainty. It hardly ever feels good not to know the answer, or to have never done something before. But this is required if you’re going to get somewhere you’ve never been.

And if you need to go somewhere, you just need to listen to Winnie the Pooh:

“I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.”

How You Can Embrace Change

Here are some ways to help you embrace the change that is required in leadership:

  • Acknowledge uncertainty: Make it clear to the people around you that uncertainty is a natural part of the process.
  • Don’t pretend to know everything: Some leaders like to pretend they have all the answers. This approach is stressful and impossible, at the same time. Admit it when you don’t know. Then go and find out (or work it out), if you need to know!
  • Ditch the status quo: Look for opportunities to improve your team or organisation, then lead them. Businesses that stand still disappear, so making change is necessary.

Learn More:  3 Simple Ways to Influence Change in Your Team.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #65: How to Deal With Uncertainty Working “In the Grey”.

Leadership vs. Management #2: Leaders Set the Direction & Think Strategically

If you’re going to implement change, you need to set a direction. Normally, I find that this is implicit in leadership roles. However in management, we often take direction from others (such as senior leaders), and then manage our team accordingly.

But even if you’re in a “management” role, you can set direction too. If you can develop a strategy and vision for your team, there is no reason why you can’t lead them there.

People often look to leaders to set direction and strategy. This involves actively developing a vision of the future, and a plan or roadmap to get there.

Managers will often take a roadmap and take the directed actions. Leaders will work through the uncertainty to set the direction and come up with the plan.

Of course, managers can set direction too, but I feel that this is a leadership action.

Setting the Direction - Leadership vs. Management

How You Can Set the Direction

To help you set the direction, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do you want your team (or organisation, or product, or something else) to be in the future?
  • How will you know when you’ve achieve it?
  • Can you explain your future vision in a few sentences? How could you make it more concise, understandable and aspirational?
  • Is there something in your team or organisation that seems unstructured, chaotic or aimless? Could you set the direction and make it better?

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #81: The Power of Setting a Direction for Your Team (and how to do it).

Learn More:  Don’t Have a Team Operating Model? Here’s Why You Need One.

Learn More:  6 Critical Strategic Skills All Leaders Need.

Leadership vs. Management #3: Leaders Develop People

I’ve always considered developing people to be a critical part of leadership. When you’re leading change and trying to implement new things, you need people to come along with you.

Part of this is helping your team to develop the right skills, capabilities and attributes to be able to keep up. While you’re leading the way, you’re also a role model for others. You need to set a good example so that they feel compelled to engage in similar behaviour.

Coaching and mentoringFor me, management is more about taking something (a team or process) and making sure it runs the way it should. Leadership is about taking something, proactively making change and improving it, or starting with nothing and creating something new.

You don’t want to lead the same team in a year as you do today. You want the team to have grown in strength and capability, so that it’s better than what it was.

Leaders also like to develop other leaders, that can follow in their footsteps. This helps to create more change and better ways of working, even when the original leader has moved on.

Managers also like to develop people, but I feel that the intent is different. The intent for managers is to develop the skills of the team so it can run more efficiently and with less risk. Leaders like to develop people to handle the world of the future, not the world in the status quo.

How You Can Develop Your People

One of the best ways to develop your people is to provide development opportunities.

Development opportunities are tasks or projects that your people can take on that lie outside of their usual role or skill set.

In my experience, the best development opportunities exist where there is new or unique work that needs to be done, which doesn’t fit directly into somebody’s existing role. This allows team members to “step up” and take on different responsibilities.

Development opportunities can make people uncomfortable. With the right support and coaching, this is where the magic happens. Being outside of your comfort zone is one of the best ways to learn new skills and gain new experience.

Learn More:  Risk & Reward: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.

Leadership vs. Management #4: Leaders Build Culture

As we’ve already covered above, a manager is more focused on making things run properly than in making change. As such, a traditional manager is more likely to focus on having clear processes, roles and responsibilities, to ensure for a smooth running team.

Team CultureBy contrast, I feel that a leader builds culture to create an environment ready for change. Given that leaders need to introduce change, they need to build attitudes and behaviours that support resilience and flexibility.

A leader is often showing the way, and they build culture by role-modelling the right behaviours, while addressing issues and poor behaviour early.

Team members are encouraged to grow and develop, rather than being kept in role-shaped boxes. This development breeds flexibility, teamwork and an ability to cope with change and uncertainty.

Culture is often described as “the way we do things around here”. This is vitally important for leaders, whereas a traditional manager may be more focused on metrics and targets than personal interactions.

In addition, managers often try simply to exist within the culture they are given. Leaders will try to improve, shape and nurture culture, to create a better organisation.

How You Can Build a Positive Culture

Building a positive culture is a huge topic, but here are some pointers for you:

  • Get your hands dirty: Leaders who want people to follow them often need to get stuck into the work themselves, rather than standing back and directing others all the time. Getting stuck in shows that you’re not all about hierarchy, you actually care about making a difference.
  • Empower your people: The best way to have a high-performing team is to give them accountability, and then the autonomy to deliver results. Instead of directing everything, encourage them to step up and direct the work themselves.
  • Show the behaviours you want others to follow: Don’t be a “Do as I say, not as I do” manager. Walk the talk and show positive behaviours that you want for your team. Be a role model.
  • Avoid the blame game: When you stop thinking about blame, you create a safe environment for people to work together and try new things. When people are scared of failure, you’ll see negative behaviour creep into a team.
  • Create a culture of open communication: Ask for feedback, and take suggestions on board. Give feedback and help people improve. The more openly you can communicate with your team, the better chance you have of spotting issues and opportunities for improvement.
  • Understand your team members: If you know what drives your team members, you’ll be able to lead them in a way that suits them. One way does not suit everyone, so you need to be aware of the needs, wants and aspirations of your team.

Culture is king in a team, and in my view, leaders have a greater focus on culture than traditional managers do.

Learn More:  6 Powerful Ways to Create Open Communication in Your Team.

Learn More:  How Negative Leadership Behaviour Shapes Team Culture.

Leadership vs. Management: Leaders Create the System, Managers Work Within It

Based on all the factors above, there is a trend that comes through. It is that leaders create the system, and managers work within it.

Managers are more likely to be interested in optimising performance, improving productivity and getting more out of their team. Managers enjoy stability. When a team is stable and performing well with few issues, this is the manager’s dream.

Leaders are more likely to shake up the system entirely. This might mean doing something completely different to change the game for the organisation.

Leaders often see a better way and try to make it happen. I find that many great leaders have a way to see past the constraints that exist in an organisation, instead they can visualise a brighter future.

You don’t have to be in a senior position to be a leader. You can make change, set a direction and get people on board at any level. Start small, and step up to bigger things.

That’s how you can be more leader and less manager, if you’re up for it.

In the great leadership vs. management debate, there are overlaps and blurred boundaries. We all lie on the spectrum between leader and manager, but there is no good and bad.

There is only what suits the role and the needs of your team and the organisation.

Would You Like to Be More of a Leader… and Less of a Manager?

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Thoughtful leaders often struggle with managing the tricky balancing act of leadership. This might be the balance between work and the rest of your life, the balance between being firm with your team and being too nice, or the balance between staying silent and saying “no”.

Confidence suffers as you start to doubt yourself, asking “am I doing the right things?”

At the end of the day, you want to get the best out of your people and see them thrive, without doubting yourself or burning yourself out.

Leadership takes courage, and leadership coaching can be a great way to help you achieve success. Click the button below to learn more and see how I can help you.


What do you think about leadership vs. management? What’s the difference? Leave a comment below and share your experience with all the Thoughtful Leaders here!

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