“What do you mean they’re not the same?” – Manager vs Leader

“What do you mean they’re not the same?” – Manager vs Leader

We’re not here to pit the two roles against each other in a “My role is more important than yours” battle. Instead, we’re here to shed some light on why being a manager is different from being a leader – and vice versa. Trust us – in the long run, we’ll be saving you some money and ensuring people are placed in the right roles.

Surprisingly, there are companies and organisations that still ask, “Is there’s a difference?” or worse still, use leadership and management interchangeably without internalising the possibility of a difference.

1. EMPLOYEES // FOLLOWERS

Managers are defined as “a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff” and is “regarded for their skill in managing resources”.

Leaders are defined as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization”.

Taking away the degrading use of words like “controlling” and “commanding”, managers are skilled resource allocators and leaders are guides. Managers will ask you how you’re coming along with your KPI for the day while leaders will ask you how you are. Managers will prioritise results and no one faults them for this – this is their job. As a result of such a work-driven position, managers are seen as having “employees”.

Meanwhile, leaders will build a following as they support, inspire and provide the direction needed for the team to work towards realising the company’s “big picture”, usually 2 – 5 years in the future. A leader is like the ant at the very front of an ant line – marching ahead, occasionally turning back to check that the others are following and then continue marching on for however long it needs to or until it gets to where it wants to be.

2. PRESENT // FUTURE

Managers work for the present. They are often project-based managers that break big plans into smaller tasks. They will delegate these tasks to the right team and ensure that no one is left twiddling their thumbs. They then focus on ensuring that everyone works to get these tasks done before the deadline.


Leaders don’t delegate (or at least, don’t delegate smaller, not so obvious tasks) – they focus on the big picture rather than the minute details. That is not to say that good leaders are unable to concentrate on the present – they’d rather focus on the challenges and opportunities that can come up in the more distant future. This makes them more susceptible to risk. 


While managers have control over every aspect of the production process (often not allowing room for mistakes, growth or innovation), leaders tend to make assumptions (more often than not, educated, well researched ones) that might or might not backfire.

3. GOALS // VISIONS

With that in mind, managers are fixated on achieving goals and quarterly targets. Managers have checklists in order to organise people and tasks towards a numerical, measurable result. Because these tasks are short-term, their returns are more frequent as well. Managers and their employees are more likely to remain motivated with the constant feeling of achievement as they complete and tick off tasks on their checklist.

Leaders have big mind maps that show and communicate how team members are meant to be working towards an idea and vision that has yet to manifest. These visions usually take a while to produce tangible results. As such, leaders need to remain very motivated and clear about their end goal. They will need to keep their team motivated, as they will not immediately see results – “big picture” visions could take years.

4. EXECUTION // CONFLICT

Another great asset that a good manager brings to the table is the ability to use controlled measures to avoid risk. In the event that such incidents occur, they will have standard procedures and corrective actions to implement that will minimise further loss. They are the ones who ensure that performance standards are met, performance is accurately measured and work flow and performance is organised and structured. Complacency is an issue that comes up from this as employees get used to the stringent SOPs. There is no room for learning from mistakes, as in the first place, mistakes have to be avoided at all costs.

Leaders are more hands on when it comes to controlling conflict with the team. Where managers avoid conflict to ensure that everyone focuses on the task at hand, leaders tend turn conflict into an advantageous situation. They do so by first setting a safe environment for transparency and honesty – communication becomes the focus. This is where employees will be able to admit to mistakes and take accountability for them without fear of being reprimanded by management. To encourage this environment, a great leader will admit his/her own mistakes. This will encourage the same attitude from his/her team members. This will allow for more innovation, learning and ultimately – growth.

Before becoming the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai applied for the job of Vice President of product management with Google. At the time, he was asked for his opinion on “Gmail”. Ironically (and rather cleverly), they set the question up as a test for Pichai – Gmail launched on the same day as his interview with them. 

His answer? “I don’t know. I haven’t used it.”

Needless to say, he got the job. While his impressive professional background provided Google proof of his professional capabilities, his admittance showed that he had potential to be a great leader – one who would encourage trust, honesty and learning.


In his 11 years with them, Pichai proved that he was a manager with leadership qualities. He stayed on top of his department by foreseeing challenges and acting accordingly (he pitched the Chrome browser as a solution to the possibility of Microsoft introducing a competitive toolbar), hiring good people and delegating efficiently. That is what propelled him to the position of CEO of the third most valuable brand in the world.

With these not so subtle differences between leaders and managers, it will be easier to efficiently allocate talent to the right roles. A lot of the time, when companies find that they have employees that are excelling in their roles – be it in terms of project management or as a team player – they will promote them to leadership roles. Often times, this works well for the company and profits climb steadily. It is not uncommon, however, for the promoted employee to experience a slight “culture” shock – inability to deal with the demands of his/her new role leading to conflict, misalignment, unmet needs, and lack of output and communication breakdowns. 

While being fundamentally different, efficiency is increased when you put managers and leaders together. A leader that can efficiently manage while avoiding turning into a micromanager is more likely to succeed than a leader that can only tell his/her team what to do and then leave.

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