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Submitted by Brian Hanks on


Do you feel like there is a difference between a leader and a manager?

I ran across a great article, written by Robert Sutton, in the blog section of HBR about the use of the two words in today's business environment (link here) and the author makes the case that there is no difference - or that there should be no difference (always dangerous to use the s-word, I know).

Two key lines stood out to me that hearkened me back here to Manager Tools:

"In my reviews of the writings and research, I kept bumping into an old and popular distinction that has always bugged me: leading versus managing. ... Although this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree, it has unintended negative effects on how some leaders view and do their work."

"... this distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve."

I tend to agree with the article and believe that managers should view themselves as leaders, and leaders should view themselves as managers. What are others' thoughts?

jhack's picture

Here are previous discussions to get you started, including Mark's take on the issue:


John Hack

asm1105's picture

Thanks for refering to the Sutton article. Nice read. However, it takes careful reading.

He does not question the fact that there is a difference between managers and leaders, but he takes exception at certain individuals who are "self-proclaimed" leaders using the role as justification for only considering the "big picture". I've just completed my Diploma of Company Directorship at the Institute of Durectors in London. I can assure you that the professional concept of a "Leader" (assuming Board Directors might be considered Leaders), is far more hands on in terms of understanding exactly what their managers are being delegated as responsibility, what is expected of them and how to strategically direct the company to optimise its competitive advantages and opportunities in the market place. There are plenty of Directors out there who in recent years have spent their time not fullfilling these requirements, and guess what - we've experienced the biggest financial mess since the war. 

In fact, being a manager is a task oriented, functional role. It is indeed about organising the achievement of objectives, and as this web site testifies to, there are endless ways, means and opportunities to do this more or less proficiently. To certain extent, good managers are leaders in that they invoke the respect of employees to relate to his/her objectives and are willing to go the extra mile to help the unit achieve their common objectives.

When we speak of Leaders with a capital "L" however, it is something different.  This is not a functional role - it is a quality. It is a relatively rare quality, and just as well. The expression "too many cooks, spoil the broth" comes to mind. Just as a good manager will generate respect for his competence and "project leadership", the natural Leader will inspire awe and loyalty of a different dimension.  The Leader is him/herself gripped by a passion that drives the organisation forward. Its a deep-seated energy that is instantaneously recognisable. We've all experienced being in the presence of a person where we ask ourselves "how do they do it? Where does (s)he get that energy from? How can he/she manage to keep going in the face of obstacles that seem impassable?". These people have credibility and inspire confidence (I won't make any cheap comments about politicians here ...). These are people who have all the necessary ability to manage, but instead inspire those around him/her to follow - including excellent managers. The component tasks necessary to achieve a vision are delegated to managers, but the Leader's job is to define that vision and to coordinate and galvanize the organisation into action to act as one in the pursuit of a common, shared goal.

A true Leader only achieves such status by having "adherents", a significant number of people who believe in the Leader's ability to get them somewhere they want to go. Self proclaimed leaders may be Dreamers, but they'll never be Leaders.


chosen_well's picture


I have also read the article and feel that the author is only conveying the leaders role from the senior side of management or the “The Top”.
I tend to agree with AMS1105, and feel that the manager roles are clerical and administrative in nature. In contrast however the leader’s role is an attribute or characteristic of the individual. I see the coin from the opposite side of the "Top" approach, my organization has taken great lengths to hire and train people who are of the understanding that we ALL have the ability to be a leader. The philosophy followed here is “get the right people on the bus, and then worry about were the bus is going.” As demonstrated in Jim Collins book Good to Great.
There is also an important distinction between authority and power; A few people have made reference made to this in the other threads mentioned by JHack. The manager inherently carries authority (or commonly referred to by Manager Tools as “Role Power”). To the contrast a leader MUST be empowered in order to be effective. (having this becomes evident by expressing the other forms of power; Relationship power, and reputation power)  In order to reach the highest level, the leaders must be mentored correctly. It is my belief that you should first demonstrate the ability to be a good leader and then the transition into manager will be a more intuitive one. Although management must still be learned. If this is  practiced all the way through an organization, then the managers will already have the attributes of good leadership. This is a bottom up approach and is in contrast to the tone of the article.
            In an recent and intensive “Leadership Training” that is sponsored by my organization, there was extensive talk on this issue. At the beginning most of the group was put off by the lack of “leadership” representation (read: “how come MY boss isn’t here learning this? They need it more then me!”), by the finishing of the session (4 days later) it was decided that WE are the leadership! A group of mostly first line, and a few second line supervisors. It is within us to effectively  demonstrate the culture of the organization. The “leadership team” (newly realized) decided to take the top few items that we felt needed to be addressed first and present them to the rest of management. By this act we showed our managers that we can fill there roles, as we do have vision and drive to succeed. Succession after all should be their goal, so they can move on in their careers. Further it was demonstrated to our directs that there is room to help shape and exhibit the culture of the organization, from different levels of “leadership”.
       This initiative was latter applauded by the top levels of leadership, and the people involved in spear heading it are considered among the highest functioning within the organization, even though there role may not currently reflect it. And this view is shared from both side of the organization (up and "down").
       There is a very important difference between Leader and Manager.
- Trevor Gibbons

curtcoffman's picture

Leaders should be 100% about creating a better TOMORROW

Managers should be about creating an outstanding TODAY

Orchestra director vs. First chair of woodwinds

   -Curt W. Coffman, Co-Author, First Break all the Rules (Simon & Schuster)



Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

A Manager Tools Tip of the Cap to Curt, who wrote a fabulous book we highly recommend - get it and read it.  I just mentioned it today to an executive coaching client.


curtcoffman's picture

I am an avid reader and listener of your work.  I couldn't control myself and not chime in on this topic.  Thank you for your passion and body of work.  It is too bad that we still do not have contemporary managers.  In almost all cases we have managers of "things" versus managers of "people."  

A stat to leave you with:

   -- we carry the connection to our work, home at a 6 times greater level than we carry our connection at home to work.  The workplace significantly influences us as spouses, parents, friends and the levels of contribution we have in our communities. 

The true work of great managers transcends our lives in almost every area.

rok777's picture

This artificial distinction between managers and leaders is unnecessary and dangerous. Individuals responsible for the work of others must be accountable for the productive output (managing) and for setting context (leading) the people they are responsible for. Western business experts and consultants have created and sustained the manager / leader dichotomy in an attempt to explain improperly structured organizations. Properly defined roles within an organization and the selection of appropriate individuals to fill them eliminate the need for this arbitrary distinction. Let’s explore some definitions and the consequences to an organization that uses them: Leaders – should be primarily interested in direction, vision, goals, effectiveness and purpose; innovate; focus on people; rely on trust; have their eye on the far horizon; endeavor to remove them (barriers, including restrictive policies); ensure the right things are done; must be at the top of the organization. Managers – focus principally on ensuring efficiency and performance in day-to-day operations; administer; focus on systems and structures; rely on control; have their eye on the bottom line; justify the barriers, including restrictive policies; things are done right. This is a very insect-like assessment of the workplace in which managers are senior drones policing subordinate drones. No creative work can be done by managers and like the broom in the ‘Sorcerers Apprentice’ they carry on until redirected, regardless of the consequences. Most businesses have ‘managers’, that like Mickey Mouse, lack the capability to provide context (the why of doing something) for their subordinates and create the drone-like workplace for their unfortunate subordinates. These definitions would have leaders represent the ‘queens’ in this analogy. They do all of the creative heavy lifting and are rewarded accordingly. They don’t use positional power but run complex organizations based on trust. Their drones would be expected to follow them even if they weren’t in power positions. If their ‘right things’ are wrong, then all of the ‘manager drones’ and their subordinate drones fail; and so does the organization. Organizations that accept this false dichotomy create organizational structures that cannot prosper. They disenfranchise the very levels of their organizations (the managers) that have the biggest impact on the real customer facing delivery of goods and services. They create situations where the ‘non-drone’ employees and managers will rapidly leave these organizations for organizations that value and encourage creative contribution at all levels in the organizational structure and not just at the top.

asm1105's picture

 Here is a statistic for you. I just searched "Leadership" on Amazon and got 172,161 hits; that's over 172 THOUSAND!!!*

The reason is simple: Each culture will have mildly different concepts of what is leadership. I currently work for a French company which is run on very strict, top down, hierarchical lines that (to be cruel) delegates responsibility without any authority down the line, leading to an endless avoidance of responsibility in the field and continual "esclalations". Here a Leader is at the very top, and Managers are very definitely the drones referred to by ROK777. Manager Tools would have an epileptic fit if they ever had to try to get to grips with that one!! Very different from my previous employers more of the anglo-saxon and Nordic ilk.

Reading the above entries, it seems to me that gathered together in a room sharing a bottle of wine, we'd end up finding a formula that we could agree on, but we'd all still go off and pronounce on the subject in each our way based on our own experiences, learning and cultures.

Leaders are responsible for vision, creative force, coordination of their organisation into an effective whole, in pursuit of their assigned mission. Managers execute their delegated tasks within an organisation and for a mission, which may be tasks only (like Mickey's broom') or include leadership tasks at various levels. A Captain on the battlefield has to exercise leadership within the context of his mission and in the face of the circumstances in which he finds himself. The General has to show leadership at a higher level, overseeing the entire battle, including logistics and supply lines, etc. In this sense the General is also a Manager exhibiting a degree of leadership.

As I mentioned before. being a Manager is to fullfill a function to the level of responsibility and authority = accountability assigned to him/her. This is true at any level of the organisation. A Leader however is a quality, and not a task. ROK777's employer seeks leadership qualities in its managers. What I suspect they mean is the ability to accept responsibility and to take autonomous decisions, inspiring subordinates to work together as a team to meet delegated tasks/mission - qualities indeed. A leader is linked to the ability to inspire others to perform as a coordinated whole. You have leaders at all levels of the company, but how great they are depends on how truly powerful their inner energy is to define and pursue a distant goal. As the scope and complexity of the objective increases, so you need a powerful sense of organisation, conceptual thinking and emotional intelligence to achieve leadership status. Without it the company achieves its goal with a workforce motivated by paypacket - efficient perhaps, but unlikely to unlock the creative energy of the company and seriously outperform the competition. The CEO is a Manager like the rest of us, some CEO's are true Leaders, but not all. Can you win wars through good management only? Maybe, but I'm sure the chances are improved when the troops get stars in their eyes as they watch their "Leader" walk amongst them. If you can't imagine what I mean, have a look at the opening scene of "The Gladiator" where Russell Crowe walks through the ranks of his troops in the dark forests of Germania. They know he's a man with the determination  to succeed, that they will follow him to battle with a fierce enemy because they believe in him, that he will provide the best chances of success AND personal survival or gain.

*P.S. I hate to admit that when I hit the related search of leadership and management it "only" got 38,325 hits. The other one is more fun to use, but even 38,000 + is impressive.

wdywft's picture

I really like Jurgen Appelo's view (being a leadership pragmatist):

"[...] The management hierarchy is a simple necessity, and that the bulk of the work is done through a social network of leaders and followers. The leadership network is superimposed on the management hierarchy. Communication and inspiration flow through the network. Authorization and restriction flow through the hierarchy."

In my opinion, there is no such thing as manager VS. leader.

Full article: The Nonsense of Leadership (Princes and Priests)

asm1105's picture

Appelo seems to come down in the camp of "we have leaders at every level of the organisation" camp. This is what I believe also, only he also highlights that leadership is superimposed on management structures. This tells me that he believes that there is a difference in what management and leadership represent and contributes. The closer to the executive and Board you get, the more essential it is that Directors have leadership (i.e. the ability to set direction and to convince) as well as a fundamental understanding of what management requires. Their job is to consider the course of the firm, to choose the executive management of the company and to delegate the management responsibility to that management - starting with the CEO (who is also a leader, but one who is tasked to execute the objectives defined within the Board (of which he is a member).

You may argue that there is a false chism between leadership and management - this must not be applied to the difference between the Board and Executive Management where the roles of each are clearly defined (or should be).


wdywft's picture

I can't speak about Board and Executive Management, as I've only managed a tanning salon and a Waffle House, but I just don't get it why someone would want to separate management from leadership. I have direct influence over my staff; doesn't that sort of make me a leader? I do believe we can all lead from where we are (and then improve from there).

This stigma that managers are only leaders if they are 'super inspirational and fairy-like (for lack of a better word)' is getting old.

"This tells me that he believes that there is a difference in what management and leadership represent and contributes" - I agree that the higher-up you go, the more leadership is necessary. But even a manager with a leadership ability of 2 (think Maxwell) who manages a staff with an average leadership ability of 1, is a leader.

I'm a huge supporter of fast food companies providing leadership training to their managers. I don't like the idea of 'your store isn't doing very well - you must suck as a leader'. That's just not helpful.