Leader or manager?

Oct 21 2009 by Charles Helliwell Print This Article

Too many people still confuse strong leadership with good management and vice versa. So I thought I would provide some simple guidelines and examples to differentiate between the two and determine whether an individual is either or both.

Wikipedia cites 12 clear distinctions between good managers and strong leaders, but I'd just like to concentrate on four of them and put those into some kind of context.

  • Leaders focus on people, whilst managers focus on systems.
  • Leaders do the right thing, whilst managers do things right.
  • Leaders inspire trust, whilst managers rely on controls.
  • Leaders originate, whilst managers imitate.

We can all cite examples of strong leaders, but how many of us can do the same for good managers?

Leaders and managers don't necessarily come out of the same bucket, and yet in business and commerce it is often taken as given that good leaders and strong managers are one and the same.

But did Alexander The Great develop and execute military campaigns which are still considered mandatory reading by the military strategists of today, by concentrating on systems, imitating others and doing things right? Did Ernest Shackleton give considered thought to his chances of survival in sailing 800 miles in an open boat in the Southern Ocean, from Elephant Island to South Georgia?

In 1945, Winston Churchill was beaten comprehensively by Clement Atlee in the UK general election because the country wanted a manager, not an inspirational leader. And what was it that drove Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to pursue similar goals which, at the time, were deemed impossible to achieve?

If these men are considered amongst the great leaders of our time, then what makes them so and do they also qualify as good managers? I suspect that the answer is probably not, because inspiration and originality and organisation and planning are strange bedfellows.

For example, Alexander's legacy was not the longevity of his empire, but the cultural influences which remained as a result of his conquests. Had he planned this? If Ernest Shackleton had been a better planner and organiser, would the Endurance have been crushed in the ice and the survivors stranded; prompting his heroic rescue?

Had Winston Churchill, an inspirational but disorganised leader, not replaced Neville Chamberlain, a capable manager and skilled organiser, at the start of the World War II, would Britain have been defeated by Germany?

And what of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? Did either of them conclude that campaigns of violence and terrorism would have been less successful than the campaigns of non-cooperation and non-violence they opted for? And was this inspired and original thinking, executed with organisation and planning, or was this just a case of doing the right thing at the right time?

The answer, I suspect, is that it is a little bit of both. Being a good leader isn't something that you take out of a textbook or a training manual. Becoming a good leader, in whatever circumstances, is ingrained within us, should we choose to look for it and release it. It's just that, more often than not, our employers and superiors would prefer us to act more as capable managers than inspirational leaders, because leaders tend to challenge the status quo.

Managers, after all, are there to manage - and it's always easier to recognise, assess and evaluate those who manage versus those who lead. As Paul Birch, in his book 'Instant Leadership' suggests, managers concern themselves with tasks, whilst leaders concern themselves with people.

And yet history will again prove that in turbulent times and periods of uncertainty, people everywhere will look towards those who lead, as opposed to those who manage, for their own inspiration.

About The Author

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.

Older Comments

It seems to be conventional wisdom these days to portray leadership as 'good' and management as 'bad.' In my view, you can not be a good leader and a bad manager. You can only be a good manager with poor leadership skills if you manage a function and no people. Great leaders definately know how to manage - they go hand-in-glove. What is the benefit of drawing distinctions?

Pat Hermanson

Thanks Pat. Your points are well made. I guess the purpose in defining some differences between the two came from a sense that people were looking for some sort of clarity; particularly at present, where performance assessment and evaluation of both attributes becomes uncertain and confused. Many organisations tend to assess individual performance solely in terms of managerial capability and presume that the same provides parallel indicators as to leadership potential. I only seek to suggest that when individuals begin to explore their own leadership credentials, the enlightenment they will gain from that experience will provide them with greater opportunities to develop and grow as managers.

Charles Helliwell London, UK

I like the distinction between the the two as I believe you can easily be a great leader and poor manager - I've seen plenty of these !

I do also think you may have overlooked one strong trait about strong and successful leaders - typically they will recognise this distinction between leadership and management and equally recognise management is not necessarily their strength so compensate for this by identifying and keeping a strong team of managers around them

So maybe to identify the real differentials it's worth talking to those teams and see what they think . . .


Steve S UK

How refreshing to see the distinction between the two a) recognised and b) written in such a straightforward way. I could not agree more with the definitions.

I consider that I am a Leader with some Managerial skills. I don't think that anyone in a Leadership/Management role can't have both, but the 'pure' Managers can be extremely hard to work with and for.

I am in an organisation which is divided into teams, most of the Team Leaders are Leaders but we have one Manager in amongst us. She makes life hell for both her team and her colleagues, she is a 'wannabe' and will step on anyones face to get there. She does not 'lead' a team she 'pushes' them, she gets results but no respect. She has a very close relationship with our boss and because of that has virtually become untouchable. She verbally abuses, emotionally blackmails and twists conversations so that she can discredit others. She is a 'temporary' Team leader but has been on Higher Duties for over 4 years - close relationship with manager - he protects her to the hilt.

BUT her paperwork is always in line and on time, her stats recorded 100% (and sometime one has to wonder at results) all i's are dotted, all t's are crossed, yet she has a very disfunctional team of people who are not happy in their work.

Thank heavens I am a Leader, I will take it as an insult in future if I am called a Manager after reading this article - thank you

Maryanne AUS

My pleasure, Maryann and thank you for your valuable and insightful contribution.

Your disruptive and manipulative colleague is, however, going to provide the rest of you with a golden opportunity she won't have considered. That opportunity will be to redeploy some of the high quality and high performing members of her dysfunctional team into those teams lead by you and your colleagues, before they finally give up and leave the company. Good employees are hard enough to find in the best of times and even harder to retain when times are tough; so, to lose them due to the disruptive behavioural and managerial style of a colleague would be a missed opportunity at best and negligent practice at worst. In addition to which, there is the additional benefit that the more good people your colleague loses, the greater the chance she will be shown up for the person she really is.

Charles Helliwell London, UK

There is certainly a difference between a leader and a manager, but ideally you need both skill sets. Moses led the Children of Israel through the Sinai for 40 years, which was a great feat, but have you looked at a map? You could hike it in a week and a half. Leadership and motivation are great but a little process gets you where you're going faster and with considerably fewer (mental) casualties.

Leadership without management skills and tools is only part of the equation, just as management without true leadership becomes stale and ineffective.

Wayne Turmel Chicago

Charles lists 4 common ways of differentiating leaders from managers: * Leaders focus on people, whilst managers focus on systems. * Leaders do the right thing, whilst managers do things right. * Leaders inspire trust, whilst managers rely on controls. * Leaders originate, whilst managers imitate.

These ideas were born in the 1980's when managers were being blamed for not anticipating the success of the Japanese in the West. Making managers out to be bad guys puts all the work on the shoulders of leaders, a disaster. We really just needed to upgrade management. Properly defined, all of these old cliches are wrong. Management is simply a process for achieving a goal in a manner that gets the best return on the resources deployed. This definition says nothing about style of type of person. *Managers deal with people not just systems. *They also make strategic decisions. *Managers have responsibilities for people and need to be trusted. *Leaders do promote change but managers can also decide on new directions and foster innovation.

Too bad we can't show some leadership and innovation ourselves and move beyond the old fashioned 1980's thinking that gave way to these sayings. It is amazing to me that people are still trotting out this stuff as if it was something new.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto, Canada

Hey Mitch, your points are very well made, expertly presented and I couldn't agree with you more.

Too many of the current perceptions about leaders and managers date back some 20-30 years; and that's the rub, isn't it ? Very little seems to have actually moved on since then. I am always excited and flattered, whenever I am asked to look inside an organisation, because I expect to see something new and different in people's behaviour each time. It's perhaps more of a sad endictment of people's reluctance to change, as opposed to the times we find ourselves in, that so few organisations seem to have moved on 20-30 years later. I am always upbeat, but often disappointed to find that the thinking I have described is still alive and well and as healthy in organisational behaviour as it ever was.

If I have presented this in a manner which gives the impression of repackaging the old as something innovative and new, and caused offence in doing so, then please allow me to apologise unreservedly.

Charles Helliwell London, UK

Hello Charles, Although I enjoyed reading your Blog, I find that anyone using the resource you have really did not do much research in their work. I do agree with you that there is a big difference between a leader and a manager, but what I would like to know is: how can this be incorporated into one person. Who are they, and what can we learn from them that will help us to become better leaders/managers as one, not either/or.

Chuck S PA

Hello Chuck. In answer to your question, my own opinion is that inspiration is a key indicator of leadership qualities; whilst discipline is a key ingredient of good management. People you will meet who seem extremely happy and comfortable in their own skin, seem to have found the right balance between the two, which suits them as individuals. However, I don't believe that there is a magic formula or a right and wrong percentile. It's a bit like mixing the right ingredents for the cake you want to bake or the meal you want to cook. The book will tell you what to include and make suggestions on the ingredients, the quantities and the timelines, but ultimately it's up to you to decide the balance and flavour which suits your own palate, best.

As for my referencing Wiki, I totally agree with you. I never use Wiki as a resource for the work I conduct, however, in the context of this column, I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that it would help other readers to reference a popular source of information. I'll know better next time, won't I ?

Charles Helliwell Wimbledon, UK