Managers vs Leaders: How Are They Different (And The Same)?

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 11, 2021

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When you think about your work environment, it’s filled with managers and leaders. But are they the same person?

At first, you might think that they are, but when you look more deeply at the people who manage, do you see people you want to follow or people who just tell you what to do? There is a difference, and you might begin to see a trend in your work environment, especially when you compare it to others.

What Is a Manager?

In effect, the manager owns an aspect of the company’s responsibilities and is responsible for ensuring that work gets done. Sometimes, they have to get it done safely, or inexpensively, or in a specific timeframe. Sometimes, they have to manage people to hit all of those goals.

Just about every business has managers. Some are just filled with them. They’re people who are in charge of controlling or guiding a certain part of a business. While we’re focused on business, just know there are managers that have nothing to do with business, too. Your favorite sports team probably has several managers.

How to Become a Manager

If you think you’d like to be in charge and make sure work gets done, you love responsibility and overseeing; then you should learn how to become a manager. These tips might help you land that dream job:

  • Education. You’ll need a high school diploma or a GED, and some managers even have a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

  • Know the business. To manage a business or even just a small area of a gigantic corporation, you need to know the industry and how it all works.

  • Job experience. Many people work their way up to management by working under a manager for a long time, learning the job and the business, and proving that they’re a good employee.

  • Let people know. If a management role is what you want, let your bosses know that’s your goal. They can then help you get on their company tract to management. It might require job shadowing, extra classes or training, mentoring, and more, but it will all help you do the job better when you get it.

What Is a Leader?

Leaders are people you trust and believe, and you want them to succeed. While jobs often have a lot of people with the title of manager, not many have people who earn the role of leader. There are some companies who are using the position Team Lead or Team Leader, but often, they really just mean manager.

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The phrase “born leader” is a pretty accurate description of those people who can truly lead. There is something about them that makes you want to follow their vision. They have leadership qualities that are hard to learn or acquire if you’re not born with them.

Manager vs. Leader Personality Traits

While you can train to become a manager, leaders are usually born that way. They might make great managers, or they might be lousy managers – it depends on the person and their strengths. Let’s break down the personality traits of great leaders and good managers.

A good manager:

  • Works well in a team. Since managers often oversee a team, they also need to be able to work well with people. There’s no room for someone who can’t work with others here.

  • Has good communication skills. A great manager can tell people what to do, and they understand. They can also listen to their team and determine where there are problems.

    Listening is just as important as telling people what to do – this is what your employees will appreciate and what will make you a respected manager.

  • Can roll with the punches. One minute your company is doing one thing and then suddenly something changes. If you want to manage your team, you need to adapt so you can adjust the workflow and environment quickly.

    This can be a big change, or it can be something simple like an employee is out because he/she is sick for a day. No matter what, you need to easily be able to come up with Plan B.

  • Is reliable. You’re never going to make it to management if the company thinks you’re unreliable. Not only that, but once you get the role, your staff needs to know they can count on you.

  • Project management. Knowing how the entire project or company works, the objective from beginning to end is very useful. Managers need to get their piece of the business done, but the best managers are really project managers.

    They understand why and how their piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture. This helps them find inefficiencies and pinpoint things that are going well.

A good leader:

  • Inspirational. Probably one of the most important traits of an effective leader is their ability to inspire others. People want to follow leaders. This is their defining characteristic, and it’s something that’s hard to learn if you’re not born with it.

  • Empowering. There is something about the best leaders that goes beyond inspiration. It’s empowering. You’re not only moved to help them to the goal, but you feel that you’re an important part of achieving the goal.

  • Confident. Leaders also have a sense of confidence in them. Not arrogance, but they believe so firmly in the cause that you’d never question them. In fact, their confidence is contagious, and you may also begin to believe.

  • Creativity. While managers take direction and pass it along, leaders come up with new ideas. They innovate and stand out from the crowd with thoughts that get people excited.

  • Empathy. While a great manager typically has some people skills and other soft skills when it comes to dealing with others, a leader has empathy.

    A leader can sense when the tide is turning and people are no longer engaged. They know how to bring them back because they know what they’re feeling.

By looking at the traits of a manager and a leader, you see that they’re not mutually exclusive. A good manager could be someone that’s a leader. Or a leader may stand out in your company and be an easy choice for a future manager. They can be one and the same, but they don’t have to be.

Attitudes and Goal Mentality

One of the significant distinguishing factors between leaders and managers is their attitude toward the goal at hand. Managers tend to be passive regarding the goals because they’re just part of the job. Leaders are passionate because the goal is a strong desire for them. It’s passion versus passivity.

This distinction can be crucial to an employer. While a passive manager often doesn’t cause any problems and accepts the task at hand, a passionate one can inspire greatness, change the status quo, and bring about a new era.

The key is knowing what the direction of the company is. If doing what has always been done is the goal, then a leader might not be a good fit. If your company is a start-up that’s looking to explode with success, then managers who are also leaders are crucial to stellar success.

Can Organizations Cultivate Leadership?

Much of what makes a person a leader is innate, meaning they’re born with it, and many have no idea how they developed those skills. It might have to do with genetics or the way they were raised.

But companies love a great leader. They need them in many different positions in their company. Can a company cultivate leadership and transform a manager into a leader? The truth of the matter is that they probably can’t. But what they can do is learn to identify born leaders early on and then put them on the track to management or even greater things within the company.

The following tips can help them spot the leadership potential of people early in their employment:

  • Engaged and enthusiastic. Those eager employees who want to learn and do, and also appear to be listening to all the time, have a leader’s potential. They might be that diamond in the rough you’re looking for.

  • People love them. If you see others in the company openly embrace the new person and want to be around them, they’ve got a leader’s people skills.

  • Accountability. Anyone who has a “not me” attitude is not a leader. If they shift blame to others or don’t volunteer to do things, then they are not your next superstar. But that person who is willing to take on tasks and fix what went wrong has serious potential.

  • Emotional-intelligence. Having emotional intelligence doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have emotions, but their emotions are appropriate. Avoid people who are hotheads, overly upset, or off on the other end of the spectrum and apathetic. Look for people who care for others, who have good interactions with others, and who can put others first.

  • Ability to learn. One thing you’ll repeatedly see in leaders is they never stop learning. Managers who aren’t leaders will take instruction and do what they’re told. But managers who are leaders will see new ways to do things. They’ll want to move beyond their current position and grow. They’re always looking to be better, and this inspires others.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that some managers are not leaders, and that’s okay. In fact, in some situations, that might be better for the person, the people who work under that manager, and for the company.

In other situations, cultivating a leader into a manager could be what the organization needs to take flight and soar to new levels of success. Taking the right personality and letting their natural leadership skills dictate their management style can help everyone and can boost morale.

While strictly speaking, being a manager doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a leader. Being a leader doesn’t mean you’ll make a great manager. It all depends on the work environment and the end goals of the company.

But what is important is being able to identify leaders when they enter your company and knowing how you want to use their talents. When done correctly, everyone can benefit from funneling leaders into roles where they can succeed.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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