Leadership vs. management: What’s the difference?

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsMarch 30th, 20217 min read
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Are you a leader, or a manager? How do you decide? What’s the difference—and why does it matter?

We often conflate leadership and management. Most of us use the two terms interchangeably with little downside. When we talk about leaders, we usually mean managers, and when we address managers, we think of them as leaders. But while the same person can be both, they don’t necessarily have to be.

Good managers don’t have to be great leaders—and some leaders may not have the title “manager.” But in order to have a good company and a great team, you need both. As a manager, you can support team members during their day-to-day work and empower them to get their best work done. As a leader, you can share the bigger picture so team members can buy into the company’s overall vision. Both positions are critical for an effective team and collaborative workplace.

Whether you’re a manager, a leader, or both, learning to differentiate between the two roles can help you develop skills for each. In this article, we’ll help you define leadership and management by objectives, outline some similarities between the roles, and highlight how they differ.

Management is operational; it’s about setting priorities, evaluating priorities, hiring and firing decisions, compensation decisions, things like that. A leader is more of a coach, or even a spiritual guide. She is responsible for maintaining energy, keeping everyone on the team inspired and helping them grow, and for ensuring everyone is aligned in the same direction. A leader must be a point of strength and stability across changes.
Read: Dustin Moskovitz shares his lessons on leadershipTry Asana for managers

Top leadership skills

Effective leaders help guide their company in the right direction—they know how to share goals and inspire people towards the bigger picture. Leaders don’t just dream of where they want to go, they also lead by example to motivate team members on the way there. If you think of a company as a ship, leaders are the ones who decide where to go—the people who have their eye on the horizon.

Key leadership qualities include:

  • Motivation. Strong leaders motivate their team to achieve the impossible. They share their energy and enthusiasm with the group in order to achieve more than they would have otherwise been able to by themselves.

  • Creativity. Good leaders think outside the box and challenge the status quo. Critically, leaders don’t just focus on their own creativity—they also support and nurture creativity in their team members.

  • Mentoring. A key tenet of leadership is helping your team grow to their full potential. You can do this by coaching and guiding your team members—instead of prescribing or assigning work.

  • Problem-solving. Problem-solving is an important skill at every level of the decision-making process. As a leader, you can help solve problems at the strategic and conceptual level—for example, highlighting key organizational goals and using problem-solving strategies to identify anything that might stand in the way of your team’s goals.

  • Risk taking. Part of holding a leadership role is knowing when to take risks—and when to support your team members to take risks, too. The best leaders challenge the status quo in order to drive positive change in their organization.

To me, a leader is a visionary. They encourage and motivate those around them and see the potential in others. They challenge the status quo and strive to make positive change for the organization. It doesn't matter what your role or title is, anyone can be a leader—you just need to lean in and step up.

How can someone be a leader without being a manager?

Leaders inspire and motivate people—no matter what their own status is on the org chart. You can find good non-manager leaders at any company, but especially at companies with distributed organizational structures. In a distributed organizational model, there is a clear decision maker for every decision, but that decision maker isn’t always a manager. These types of organizations tend to benefit from high velocity and employee engagement, and as a byproduct of the way these teams are structured, they tend to foster more leaders at every level.

Read: What’s right for your company? Decision making in 3 different organizational structures

At Asana, we’ve created a distributed organizational model through the use of Areas of Responsibility (AoRs). AoRs allow us to delegate accountability for each area of the organization to ensure everything that needs to happen in the company does. Additionally, AoRs give team members who aren’t in direct management roles opportunities to grow as leaders.

To me, ‘manager’ is a title, and ‘leader’ is a state of mind or attitude. Being a manager isn't a prerequisite to being an effective leader, but effective leaders often are successful managers. In practice, the manager's title defines the scope of the role, but the impact on the team is driven by their leadership skills.

Top management qualities

Not every manager is a leader—and that’s ok. Good managers provide clarity and direction to their team members. They are the backbone of the team, and function as the support system for teamwork and collaboration. In the ship analogy, if leaders are the people with their eyes on the horizon, managers are the ones reading the map. As a manager, you are the one plotting the course and showing your team members how you’re going to get there.

Read: What only managers can do to keep employees engaged

Key management skills include:

  • Feedback. Great managers are dedicated to helping team members develop their skill set, and a key way to do that is through clear, constructive feedback. When you provide clear, relevant feedback, you can help team members identify growth opportunities. Then, through additional feedback sessions and coaching, you can guide your team members as they turn those opportunities into strengths.

  • Professional development. In addition to helping team members get their best work done, great managers also support the professional and career development of each of their team members. This might mean helping team members identify where they want to be in five years or giving them advice on how to develop certain skill sets.

  • Delegation. Good managers don’t always do the work themselves—rather, they delegate work to the best person for the job. Being a manager isn’t so much about saying, “I can do that” but saying, “I know the best person for the job.”

  • Organization and planning. Being a good manager means developing project management skills like organization and planning. These skills can help you give your team clear insight into upcoming work, and support them if they need to readjust priorities or rethink deadlines.

  • Problem-solving. Like leaders, managers should also be good at problem-solving. But managing people means problem-solving on a slightly different level than leaders. Usually, managers use problem-solving to help unblock tasks so team members can get their best work done. This might mean helping team members identify a dependency that’s getting in the way of their work, or rethinking quarterly priorities if a project timeline got moved around.

  • Team building. Good managers recognize the value in a team, not just an individual. Part of the job description is creating team building opportunities. Whenever you can, set up situations for connection and encourage team members to get to know one another. When team members know one another, they will be more comfortable collaborating and working together.

Leadership is about the future, while management is about dealing with the here and now. A great leader inspires others to achieve results they themselves didn't think possible. A great manager, on the other hand, brings clarity, provides feedback, and helps their team develop the competencies and skill sets necessary to navigate their day-to-day work.

Why would somebody want to be a manager and not a leader?

Everyone is different—and leadership positions aren’t for everyone. There is a lot of value in focusing on being a manager first. Managers provide stability and guidance, and they may not be interested in creating the big picture vision.

Even more so than leaders, managers are selfless in the way they put the team first. First-time managers often remark about how much more work it is to manage. That’s because, instead of just focusing on putting their head down and getting good work done, managers are constantly thinking about how to best guide and mentor their team members.

If you just became a manager, it can be helpful to focus on providing the best experience for your team first and then developing your leadership skills later. After all, just because you’re focused on developing your management style now doesn’t mean you can’t dedicate yourself to building leadership qualities later.

Read: How this management style can help you support your team
I think of teamwork as a ship moving through an unlimited ice sheet. In this metaphor, the ship is the team, the ice represents possible problems to be solved, and the destination is always out of sight and unclear. It’s a manager’s job to figure out what to do with the ice we break—where to put it, how it impacts the plan and team, etc. It’s a leader’s job to clarify the ship’s direction and why it’s worth breaking all of this ice to get there.

Where management and leadership overlap

Leaders and managers have one key thing in common: they both want what’s best for their team and their company. As a result, even though they sometimes approach things in different ways, both leaders and managers work with the same goal in mind.

Leaders and managers both:

  • Connect work to company objectives. In order for a team member to do their best work, they need to understand how their daily work contributes to team and company objectives. Providing this clarity can help team members better prioritize to get their most high-impact work done.

  • Value two-way communication. Whether you’re communicating a goal to the entire team or connecting with a team member during a 1:1 meeting, two-way communication is the best way to make sure your team feels heard and valued. To become a good two-way communicator, practice sourcing feedback, processing what you’re hearing, and then acting on it.

  • Invest in the development of their team. Supporting and mentoring team members shows up in a lot of different ways. From mentoring and coaching to career development conversations and 1:1 meetings, leaders and managers are both invested in helping their team do their best work.

For me, a leader is someone who helps you understand the Big Picture. What's the vision for the team, and how does that vision connect to a broader set of organizational objectives and mission? A manager is the person who gives you the support and mentorship needed to make an impact in your role and help make that Big Picture a reality. Sometimes the same person will occupy both roles within a team. Sometimes it's multiple people. But both roles are important for the success of any team.

3 differences between leaders and managers

Leaders and managers have a lot in common, but they frequently approach situations in different ways. Here are three ways leaders and managers might approach the same situation differently in order to best support their team.

While leaders and managers both aim to motivate people to drive impact and achieve results, managers are more concerned with the operational aspects of that journey, whereas leaders are focused on inspiring and empowering people to accomplish their goals. Another key differentiator is that leaders continuously strive to evolve and push for change, while managers are often looking to maintain the status quo.

Building and communicating a strategic vision

Part of being a leader at any given company is helping to set and communicate your company’s strategic vision. A recent survey of over 6,000 knowledge workers found that only 16% of workers believe their company was very effective at setting and communicating goals. As a leader, you have the power to not only set but also communicate goals across the company.

Leaders think big picture, and then work to develop clear goals on how to achieve their company’s mission or vision statement. This includes setting quarterly or yearly company objectives and communicating those objectives to your team. For example, you might set the objective to reduce monthly customer churn to <1% before the end of the year.

Read: New to strategic planning? Start here.

Managers take that strategic vision and connect it to their team’s day-to-day work. As a manager, you’re empowered to clarify how a team member’s daily work contributes to overall company goals. By making that connection, you can help support and motivate your team on the path towards achieving company goals.

For example, if your company has set the goal to reduce monthly customer churn to <1% before the end of the year, a manager can help connect team projects to that goal. Sometimes, this will be obvious—a team member might be working on improving your company’s churn flow. But it might not always be so clear-cut. For example, a team member who is improving the pricing and packaging page is indirectly contributing to this goal by helping customers better understand what they’re paying for.

Great managers are leaders, but not all leaders are managers. Managers who are also leaders inspire their team rather than direct them. Those teams achieve even better results and feel like they're co-creators in the solution rather than simply being executors of a strongly held, non-collaborative plan.

Turning ideas into reality

Leaders don’t just focus on execution—they also focus on ideas. A leader’s priority is thinking big picture and communicating how that big picture is going to drive value across the business. As part of this process, you should practice developing ideas and solutions to big picture problems.

Leaders are also the ones who motivate their team to get great work done. Once your company has decided on a direction to move in—whether you were part of that decision or not—you can be a good leader by motivating team members to understand the value of that idea.

To me, being a leader is about the ability to influence, coach, mentor, and guide others toward an achievement. Leaders provide vision, and their success is defined by the team—not themselves.

Conversely, it’s a manager’s job to focus on how to turn ideas into reality. This may mean staffing projects, allocating resources, and budgeting to hit goals. Managers support and guide their teams through their daily work. They are the ones directly reviewing documents and approving work. Ultimately, a good manager empowers team members to get their high-impact work done.

Creating and supporting company culture

Company culture is a great way to make your team members feel engaged, supported, and empowered to do their best work. Investing in company culture through team building games, learning and development opportunities, and robust employee onboarding workflows can make team members feel happier and more engaged at the company.

Read: 6 tips to build a strong organizational culture, according to Asana leaders

Where do leaders and managers come into play? It’s a leader’s job to help mold and create company culture. As Dustin Moskovitz, Asana co-founder and CEO, writes, “As a leader, I know it’s my responsibility to set the tone for our company culture.” Leaders establish what the culture should look like, emulate it, and ultimately inspire people to want to participate and improve company culture.

“Adaptable leaders are able to effectively work with, coach, and inspire diverse groups of individuals. They adapt their leadership style to suit the person they are working with, instead of having a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

A manager, on the other hand, is the person who is actually implementing culture practices and policies. Additionally, managers are responsible for representing their team’s needs on an organizational level. Once they do share any feedback, it’s a leader’s job to fold the feedback into company processes in order to improve company culture. Listening to and solving team feedback is a critical part of healthy company culture—but according to the Anatomy of Work Index, only 15% of knowledge workers currently feel completely heard by their organization.

Read: How to distribute authority to everyone in your company

Leadership vs. management: which is better?

Being a leader isn’t necessarily better than being a manager, or vice versa. You can be both—or you can focus on developing your skills in one area first. Deciding which qualities of a leader to focus on depends on what your team needs from you, and how you can best support them.

For me, a leader is someone who positively influences those around them into action, direction, and success. A leader does not have to hold a specific job title—they drive impact in any position they hold.

Both leaders and managers should aim to continue improving their collaboration and communication skills. Try these 10 easy steps to boost team collaboration.

Try Asana for managers

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