Leadership vs Management: What’s the Main Difference?

Illustration of six people marching with red and white flags, led by a person wearing a red cape and waving a red flag, symbolizing the contrast between leadership vs management.

Though the terms “leadership” and “management” are often used interchangeably, and every organization needs both in order to succeed, they are very different concepts. Understanding the difference between leadership and management is vital for balancing and coordinating efforts between the two.

Academics and business advisers who’ve studied the two disciplines use different adjectives to describe leadership vs management skills. For example, leaders are “visionary” and “strategic,” while managers are “practical” and “tactical.”

While there’s some overlap in what they do (both leaders and managers make decisions and solve problems, for example), the responsibilities and actions of leadership and management also have many distinctions.

Leaders “watch the horizon,” guiding the overall direction of the organization and making changes to the course as necessary. Managers convert the vision of leaders into daily reality, keeping operations on track and executing plans. Both are vital for effective team performance.

To put it in the plain terms of a car trip, leadership chooses the destination and maps the route; management drives the vehicle and keeps gas in the tank.

Organizations need leadership’s big-picture, long-term perspective to maintain competitiveness and differentiation. They also need management’s day-to-day control to keep operations on track and within budget.

Understanding Leadership: Unveiling the Leader Within

Leadership is about setting overall, high-level, long-term direction, and inspiring others to follow. Core characteristics of leadership include:

  • Vision
  • Passion
  • Flexibility
  • Influence
  • Imagination

To cite just a few real-world examples, Steve Jobs wasn’t a great engineer, and Jeff Bezos didn’t code the Amazon.com site, but both brought their visions to life by inspiring and guiding others. Dolly Parton and Oprah Winfrey used their leadership skills to transform their entertainment talents into building business empires.

Like art, leadership is a quality many of us may struggle to define but readily recognize when we see it, whether it’s in politics, sports, the military, our own professional field, or portrayed in Disney movies.

In professional sports, teams with great leadership win championships and defy the odds. In business, companies with great leadership build the most trusted brands and are recognized as great places to work.

On the other hand, teams with poor leadership lose games, and businesses with bad leadership lose employees due to workplace unhappiness. Recruiting, developing, and supporting effective leaders is vital to long-term success in any field.

Actionable Tips for Honing Your Leadership Skills

While most people are not “born leaders,” the good news is that leadership skills can be learned and developed. Anyone with a reasonable level of intelligence, self-confidence, and willingness to take risks coupled with integrity and a sense of curiosity has the potential to be molded into an effective leader. Research indicates that leadership is perhaps 30% genetics and 70% learned or environmentally influenced.

Leadership skills, like other forms of mastery, are developed over time. There are numerous formal and informal channels for prospective leaders to learn and hone their skills, including:

  • Leadership training courses: A great place to start is with professional development training courses such as our Strategic Leadership course. In a series of three 60-90-minute sessions every other week for six weeks, participants learn through presentations, coaching, exercises, case studies, and peer discussions how to achieve organizational goals and continue their own development.
  • Conferences and networking: Another excellent learning channel is attending leadership development conferences, where attendees learn more about various leadership-related topics from experts and through networking with other aspiring leaders.
  • Practice and experience: There’s no better way to learn than by doing. When prospective leaders gain real-world experience by leading others within the organization or outside settings (e.g., volunteering to lead church or civic groups), they discover what works and what pitfalls to avoid, as well as where they need more education.
  • Mentoring and coaching: Regular feedback and guidance from experienced leaders are invaluable in developing each aspiring leader on a personal level, constantly assessing their strengths, progress, and areas to focus on improving.
  • Peer learning: In Leadership and Management Development in Education, Tony Bush, Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Nottingham, recommends sharing information and lessons learned with colleagues as a key component of developing leadership skills—as well as “coaching for improvement” (see above) and internships.
  • Professional development workshops: Attending workshops periodically is an excellent way for emerging leaders to expand their knowledge and skills. For example, in our half-day Emotional Intelligence Training program, participants learn how to manage their own emotions more effectively as well as relate empathetically to others.
  • Reading and independent study: Aspiring leaders should take it upon themselves to learn from some of the top books on leadership. Senior leaders can recommend their personal favorites, but another great starting point is The Leader’s Bookshelf by retired U.S. Navy admiral James Stavridis. This work summarizes 50 of the best books to “help virtually anyone become a better leader.”

What is Management? The Backbone of Every Team

Having capable management at every level is essential for maintaining a high-performing organization. While leadership sets the vision and direction, management keeps operations humming on plan and on budget.

Among the key functions of management are planning, budgeting, organizing, and monitoring. While core characteristics of leadership are qualities like “vision” and “passion,” key adjectives associated with management include:

  • Persistent
  • Stable
  • Practical
  • Organized
  • Detail-oriented

Managers develop and execute plans that bring the leader’s vision to reality. But while their top priority is achieving their department’s or function’s goals, a close second is retaining and developing their team. Through their daily interactions as well as formal coaching sessions, managers play a huge role in the happiness, well-being, and future potential of the employees they manage.

Providing their direct reports with regular feedback and guidance is among the most important responsibilities of managers. But doing this well isn’t a skill that comes naturally to many people. Training programs like our day-long Manager’s Guide to Business Coaching workshop can help managers communicate more effectively, benefiting both the employee and the business.

Actionable Tips for Honing Your Management Skills

As with leadership, management skills are developed and honed over time. For new managers, training and guidance on making the transition from getting work done as an individual contributor to achieving goals through others is a vital starting point.

However, managers at all levels can benefit from ongoing training and development. A few of the specific areas where managers can benefit from periodic training include:

  • Performance management: This is training designed to help managers improve team performance, employee engagement, and productivity among other goals. Areas covered include goal setting, coaching, and evaluating employee work.
  • Communication workshops: Managers must learn to communicate clearly and effectively to be successful and advance. One area that’s particularly challenging for many is having “difficult” conversations. Programs like Conflict Resolution Training help managers better understand the nature of conflicts, identify effective resolution strategies, and remove emotion from the process.
  • Meeting management: Done right, meetings keep everyone’s efforts coordinated and move projects forward. Done wrong, they seem like a waste of everyone’s time. Training like our half-day Meeting Management workshop or online Conducting Better Virtual Meetings session help managers create concise agendas, ensure the right people are present in the meeting, recognize different personalities and communication styles, and even avoid meetings when they aren’t really needed.
  • Presentation delivery: No one wants to suffer through death by PowerPoint (seriously or not so much). The ability to actually deliver interesting and effective presentations is a rare but much appreciated (by every audience) skill. Workshops like our Presentation Skills Training can improve your confidence, ability to communicate clearly, and future career advancement potential.

Key Differences Between Leadership and Management

This topic has generated a lot of attention. In the academic paper Are Leadership and Management Different? A Review, author Dr. Ali Algahtani identified nearly 26,000 articles that discussed the difference between leadership and management. In his summary of the leadership vs management distinctions, he writes:

“Management skills are used to plan, build, and direct organizational systems to accomplish missions and goals, while leadership skills are used to focus on a potential change by establishing direction, aligning people, and motivating and inspiring.”

Why is it important to understand the difference between leadership and management? Per leadership development expert James Kotterman, Ph.D.:

“Virtually all organizations, including large corporations, military branches, government agencies, and academia, as well as MBA programs, organizational development consultants, industrial psychologists, leadership theorists, and human resources professionals are concerned about the difference and believe it is important…

“Why?… Fundamentally, if you can’t define leadership or management, you can’t measure, test, make assessments, or consistently hire or promote for them. Yet, they are both important to a successful workplace.”

The tables below summarize Dr. Algahtani’s findings in terms of 1) what leaders and managers do, and 2) how leadership and management are described.

Note the leadership vs management differences in terms of:

  • Focus: People in leadership focus on the long term, the big picture, watching the horizon. Those in management, in contrast, take a more short-term view, see the “trees” rather than the “forest,” and watch bottom-line results.
  • Responsibility: Leaders tend to have overall responsibility for large groups or entities, whether they lead a nation, a company, a church, a nonprofit, or some other type of organization. Managers have responsibility on a smaller scale for a department, business unit, function, team, or crew.
  • Approach: Those in positions of leadership create a vision, take risks, act decisively, and affect the actions of others through inspiration and influence. Managers, conversely, execute plans, manage or minimize risks, act responsibly, and exert control through formal authority.
  • Perspective: Leaders look outward, watching for trends and opportunities to capitalize on as well as threats to counter or neutralize. Managers look inward, watching their analytics and results and monitoring performance to stay on track.

Leaders vs Managers: What They Do

A comparison chart detailing differences and overlaps in leadership vs management, listing attributes, focuses, and functions of each role. Leadership and management traits are distinct yet interconnected.


Leadership vs Management Skills: Descriptive Terms

A table compares the characteristics of leadership vs management, highlighting traits such as Transformational and Strategic vision for Leadership and Transactional, Tactical planning, and Administrative for Management.

In noting the substantial differences between the two roles, it’s also important to note the areas of overlap. In addition to solving problems and making decisions, both leaders and managers:

  • Achieve organizational goals through the work of others;
  • Support their subordinates (e.g., by making sure they have the tools, resources, and help from others needed to do their jobs);
  • Coach others to help improve their skills and performance; and
  • Take responsibility for results.

Each role incorporates elements of the other. Leaders act as managers to their direct reports, and managers can incorporate principles of good leadership when guiding and instructing employees.

In addition, some managers will grow into leadership, building on their skills as they transition into the new role. Professional development programs like Developing Emerging Leaders delve into the difference between leadership and management while helping to develop early-career managers and high-potential individual contributors into your company’s “next generation” of leaders.

Additional Scholarly Quotes on the Difference Between Leadership and Management

One key difference is the age of these two practices. As Kotterman points out, “Management is a fairly new phenomenon. The emergence of large, complex organizations in the last century generated the need for a system (management) to regulate work and deal with authority and control issues…On the other hand, leadership is one of the world’s oldest preoccupations, serving as…an important driver of innovation for thousands of years.”

And Algahtani, quoting other management theorists, added:

“Whereas leaders promote change, new approaches, and work to understand people’s beliefs to gain their commitment, managers promote stability, exercise authority, and work to get things accomplished. Therefore, management and leadership need different types of people…

“Leadership goes beyond routine tasks to cope with change, whereas management is a regular, formal responsibility to cope with routine complexity.”

Enhancing Leadership and Management Skills in Your Employees

Leadership development training isn’t just for managers. It can help employees at every level, even those with no interest in moving into management, communicate and work more effectively with their managers and peers.

Participants who’ve been through leadership training with Best Corporate Events have seen significant value, saying it used “real-world examples that really brought the concepts to life,” and the sessions are “interactive and full of great examples for all levels.”

Johann from Kettle Cuisine called the program “more than awesome” and added: “The sessions have been easy to follow and understand, but with enough depth to give me ideas of how to handle situations within my team.”

Explore our professional development and team building programs to help identify leadership potential, enhance team dynamics, and increase employee engagement. These activities can help leadership and management address a wide variety of challenges, from improving team cohesion in groups with diverse personalities to rebuilding trust and morale after layoffs to building and maintaining high-performing teams.

Building a Strong Team with Effective Leadership and Management

Just as both strong leadership and capable management are vital for organizational success, both are also vital in creating successful teams. While a team’s manager has positional authority and responsibility to make sure the team is properly directed and resourced, any member of the team may be seen as a “leader” at any time based on their expertise and influence.

Effective leadership and management are complementary in forging successful teams. While management directs what is to be done, leadership provides the inspiration and creativity to make the final output of the team extraordinary.

Organizations with strong leaders are more likely to develop strong teams. Team building in leadership is about communicating clearly, developing trust, inspiring performance, and encouraging openness and honesty.

Take the Next Step:  Build Your Leadership and Management Skills

Leadership and management are different in terms of focus, responsibility, approach, and perspective, though with some areas of overlap. Despite these differences, the best leaders have some management skills (such as setting goals and directing others) while effective managers demonstrate at least some traits of leadership: inspiring trust, thinking creatively, and motivating high performance.

While not every employee has the interest or aptitude for management, all can benefit from leadership training, and those with the interest and aptitude can be trained to be more effective managers. Team building and professional development training can help organizations recognize leadership potential while improving communication and collaboration skills across their workforce.

Ready to explore how team building programs and professional development workshops can strengthen both leadership and management skills within your organization? Take a look at what Best Corporate Events offers and contact us for an assessment of your needs and consultation on customized leadership and team building activities.

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U.S. companies are facing a crisis of bad leadership, and it’s costing them in terms of lost employee trust, excessive turnover, and ultimately poorer business performance. The good news is that companies with strong leadership are thriving, and their experience provides a guide to fixing the problems.
In business as in sports, high-performing teams aren’t built on talent alone. While a certain level of individual talent is an essential element, teams that ultimately win championships—or outperform the competition in business—have talented members who work together and collaborate as a cohesive group. And the key element in creating that collaboration is emotional intelligence, or EQ.

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