Leadership v management: what are the key differences?

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Often the terms “leadership” and “management” are used interchangeably in business. This is particularly true in today’s team-based world of work where managers have greater responsibility to lead their teams and achieve organisational goals. However, while it is possible to be both a leader and a manager there are significant differences between the roles in terms of what you do and how you interact with the people around you. This blog aims to explain the distinctions between management v leadership and highlight how you can move from being a good manager to a great leader.

Leading people v Managing work

Good leadership is all about creating value through developing and communicating a vision and strategy to those around you. It is about engaging people so they buy-into what you are setting out and enthusiastically help deliver it. Leaders don’t have to be the founders or senior managers of companies – they can equally be at the head of smaller teams too. It is about using influence and inspiration to connect with others, rather than position in a hierarchy. Good leaders often have high emotional intelligence and empathy, enabling them to understand and engage with people to get them on-side.

By contrast managers are all about delivering work, implementing processes. and achieving objectives – often the objectives that leaders set out in their strategic vision. Managers tend to be selected based on specific technical skills, knowledge, and expertise. They know how to do a job or deliver a particular process successfully and how to motivate their team to get things done. As well as managing people, they are responsible for activities such as budgeting, organisational structure, and staffing. They are focused on the status quo rather than the future.

Essentially if you want to know which you are, ask yourself the question. Do you spend your time leading people or just managing work? Do you create value or count it, as Vineet Nayar, the former CEO of HCL Technologies puts it in this Harvard Business Review piece?

The key differences between leadership v management

We’ve covered the top-level differences between the two terms and emphasised that leadership is not necessarily about your position in the organisation. You can break it down further around five key areas:

Vision

Leaders set out a vision for the future for their organisation. It’s then up to managers to follow it and get buy-in at a local level from their team. Managers are then responsible for keeping employees aligned with the vision and company values.

Ideas

Leaders are all about ideas and strategies to improve on a company-wide level. In contrast managers are about execution and delivering tangible results. They might have ideas for improvement, but they are likely to be at a tactical, operational level.

Inspiration

Leaders inspire their followers, whereas managers are responsible for the immediate working environment for the employees in their team and for getting things done. According to Gallup research managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement levels. As the old saying goes, people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.

Timescale

Leaders are looking forward into the future, coming up with new strategies and aims. Managers work in the present, getting things done in the here and now.

Culture

Leaders shape and transform culture, while managers follow it.

There’s clear overlap in some of the skills needed by successful leaders and managers. Both need strong communication skills to clearly get across their message, whether that is about vision or process. They need to be able to problem-solve and make effective decisions on an ongoing basis.

Why you need leaders and managers

It’s important to stress that successful organisations need both leaders and managers. If everyone is setting strategy and no-one is taking responsibility for actioning it, then nothing is likely to get done effectively. And leaders need to be effective – developing a clear style as we explain in this blog.

Leaders and managers need to work closely together, particularly at times of change and disruption. Companies need to have a mix of skills between their leaders and managers, covering everything from ideas to execution. Some people can combine both leadership and management, but there’s normally a bias towards one or the other.

How managers can build effective leadership skills

The positive news for aspiring leaders is that leadership skills can be taught and learnt. Managers can therefore develop themselves to become successful leaders who inspire their people and drive change. This clearly requires hard work, a commitment to improve and an openness to learn based on the feedback of others.

To find out more about the steps to achieving success, download our new ebook, How Managers Become Leaders: An In-Depth Guide Into Transforming Line Managers Into Successful Leaders.

Download The How Managers Become Leaders Guide