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Difference Between Leadership and Management (Leader vs Manager)

This article was put together carefully as part of a review of over 100 articles, definitions and descriptions of leadership and management. While we don't believe it is a very good idea to make an attempt to keep management and leadership neatly and perfectly separate at all times (in business the two disciplines constantly overlap), we do think there are some key ideas worth picking out in the vast and infinite sea of literature on this topic.

The answer to this question about the difference between leadership and management can depend on the 'audience' asking the question. For example, an academic answer makes sense from the perspective of impressing a university professor, but if you are presenting the topic to a group of senior managers, they may be looking for an applied or practical answer.


Leadership Skillset

The ability of the leader to make the best possible decisions for the long-term well-being of an organisation or group (not just themselves), which involves setting a clear vision, goal, purpose, direction or strategy, and motivating people to join the cause and carry out the vision.

Leadership is very concerned with the ability to influence others (including staff, customers, shareholders, suppliers and the media), building trust and strong relationships, and shaping the best systems and teams humanly possible — all while being as humane as possible.

  • Commonly listed skills:
  • Ability to serve and support others
  • Ability to make wise decisions on behalf of others
  • Ability to empower others
  • Ability to inspire
  • Ability to persuade
  • Ability to build synergistic relationships
  • Ability to influence culture
  • Ability to use emotions
  • Ability to be ethical, demonstrate integrity and good character

(We believe that if your definition of leadership is too focused on the leader — e.g., "Leadership is the ability of the leader to influence followers towards a strategy," — it might be worth adding the words, "for the benefit of the followers, and not just the personal gain of the leader." Motivation without service to others is manipulation, not leadership.)

Management Skillset

Overseeing the execution of business objectives; handling money, resources, logistics, timeframes, and manpower efficiently and effectively, i.e., in the best possible way.

  • Commonly listed skills:
  • Planning
  • Organising
  • Controlling
  • Staffing
  • Directing and Leading

(Koontz and O’Donnel first proposed these five functions of management in, “Principles of Management: An Analysis of Managerial Functions,” in 1955. They have become widely accepted and used in business textbooks ever since.)

Leadership Position

(A formal or informal position.) Anyone who has followers. A leader is someone who leads a group, as small as two or as large as many thousands, in the direction of a goal. A leader is a person whom other people look to for direction or guidance. It implies a degree of formal authority or rank within an organisation, or social stature outside of an organisation.

Formal examples:

  • Lieutenant Commander (military)
  • Leader of the Liberal Party (politics)
  • Team Captain (sports)
  • Lead Violinist (orchestra)
  • School Principal (education)
  • Sales Manager (business)

Informal examples:

  • “A leading astrophysicist”
  • “An influential medical thinker”
  • “A thought leader”
  • “A prominent moral teacher”
  • “The leader of the running race”
  • “The unofficial head of the family”

Manager Position

(A formal position.) A person in charge of the business dealings of an organisation or department (including its people). Examples:

  • Manager of a football team (sports)
  • Manager of a band (music)
  • Manager of a restaurant (hospitality)
  • Manager of a sales team (business)

Main Focus Areas for Leaders and Managers

  • Management: Administration
  • Leadership: Vision and character
  • Leadership: Strategy
  • Management: Tactics
  • Leadership: People
  • Management: Processes
  • Leadership: Inspiration
  • Management: Operations
  • Leadership: Big picture ideas and emotions
  • Management: Things and details
  • Leadership: Doing things that are in the best interest of the group
  • Management: Doing business activities efficiently and economically
  • Leadership: Why are we doing this?
  • Management: How should we do it?

Island Example


Situation: Your plane crashes into the water near a remote island and only 20 people make it to shore. Some of the surviving passengers think that staying close to the crash site on the beach is the best chance of being rescued. Others think that there’s a better chance of survival by moving inland.

Leadership is your ability to look at the situation and determine the course of action that is best for the well-being of the whole group (not just you personally), then stepping-up and persuading the group of the strategy, motivating them to take action, and using your social skills to work the group into a cohesive unit and build their capabilities along the way.

Leadership asks:

  • Why is moving inland better for our well-being than staying close to the beach?

Management is the ability to make use of resources efficiently; divide up the remaining rations in a way that will make them last as long as possible, assign teams of people to search for supplies and gather fire wood while giving them a timeframe and a suggested search zone, bandage the wounded as best as possible so as to prevent infection, etc. Management is concerned with doing things correctly, using resources wisely, improving the speed of tasks, finding better ways to do things, on-time delivery, and monitoring the team’s performance.

Management asks:

  • What food supplies and water do we have available?
  • Who is the best person to look for firewood?
  • Where is the best place to set up a camp?
  • When should we begin setting up a camp?
  • How do we bandage a wound?

Greatest Myths

Leadership can be boiled down to just one thing. Reality: There are lots of ways of looking at leadership, which is evident by the enormous number of books on leadership styles, skills, and theories. (Far surpassing that of ‘effective management’ literature.)

Leadership is only exclusive to business. Reality: Leadership is a broad idea. You can demonstrate leadership in sports, in school, in politics, or even in a family.

Not everyone can lead. Reality: Leadership can be displayed by anybody in any organisation in any position (if only briefly). You can lead from anywhere. Leadership doesn’t have to come from a formal position.

A good manager doesn't need to be a good leader. Reality: A manager in modern-day business must be skilled at both management & leadership in order to be called a successful manager. Organisations expect managers to be able to interact effectively with their teams, so that their team members will accept instructions and work together smoothly. If a manager lacks even basic communication skills, it compromises the performance of the team — everyone will be less creative, productive, engaged, and turnover will increase. (People who don’t like their bosses will be happy to take their talents elsewhere.)

Greatest Quotes

  • “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” — Peter F. Drucker
  • "Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall." — Stephen R. Covey
  • "Effective management without effective leadership is like straightening deck chairs on the Titanic." — Stephen R. Covey
  • You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people. — Grace Hopper, Admiral, U. S. Navy
  • “Administrative work can draw managers deeper into the management marshmallow – the soft, comfortable, gooey cloud of detail that keeps them from seeing the big picture.” — Anonymous
  • "Leadership (according to John Sculley) revolves around vision, ideas, direction, and has more to do with inspiring people as to direction and goals than with day-to-day implementation. A leader must be able to leverage more than his own capabilities. He must be capable of inspiring other people to do things without actually sitting on top of them with a checklist.” — Warren Bennis
  • “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." — Dwight Eisenhower
  • “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders.” — Robert Townsend
  • “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” — Norman Schwarzkopf
If you enjoyed this article, you may have fun reading examples of horrible bosses.  
Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."

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