What exactly is the difference between a leader and a manager? We often use these terms interchangeably, but the skills necessary to be effective in these roles are quite different. One involves looking beyond day-to-day needs to see the big picture, while the other means focusing on the details. Both require a service toward others.
We tend to think of leaders as the ultimate role to aspire to, as the people who truly innovate and sometimes even change society for the better. These are the names we all know. Think: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg. Yet, I would argue that being a great manager is actually more difficult than being a great leader.
It’s true that great leaders build a clear vision and communicate it consistently. Their job is to inspire and motivate their people while being committed to developing staff through mentorship and coaching. Leaders are highly effective at building trust and healthy relationships with and within their teams. That’s a pretty tall order.
But great managers must also be great leaders — doing all of the above to some degree while also delving into the nitty gritty of overseeing programs and people to get the job done. And the better you understand, can convey and keep a team focused on the broader vision, the better manager you will be.
Why is it so important to distinguish between the two? Because being one doesn’t automatically make you the other — and whether you’re an entrepreneur running your own startup or a top-level executive in a big corporation, it’s important to understand what you excel at and what role you need to play.
Want to be a great leader?
Have you ever experienced a truly great leader? If so, you’ll know that building and communicating a vision is a critical aspect of leadership, as doing so aligns teams and creates common goals — the linchpins for success. A leader can see the big picture; broaden perspective and anticipate future trends; and learn from past experiences and take calculated risks. A great leader is curious and open to new ideas, with an eye toward the future.
By definition, leaders need followers to join in their quest, and we follow leaders that inspire and motivate us. Inspiration and motivation emerges when we share our passion with others, communicate our hopes and dreams, and help others see their brilliance. It happens when we encourage others, treat them with respect and come from a place of genuine authenticity.
To become an effective leader, spend time observing those you find to be inspiring and motivating. What do you hear them say? What energy level are they exuding? How are they communicating their message? What are some emotive words they use that move you toward action? How do they talk about learning from mistakes?
Leadership is about the stewardship of others to help individuals reach their full potential. It is not about what the followers will do for the leader. An important aspect for success in this arena is trust. Here’s how to build trust:
Trust first. Asking for trust without trusting others will stifle relationships and prevent followership.
Be reliable and consistent with behavior and action. Do what you say you are going to do, and communicate early if things change. Be aware of your reaction to stressors and setbacks, so you don’t act in a manner that causes people to avoid you.
Communicate often. Reach out to those you lead, ask about their interests and share your own stories.
Be patient. Everyone develops at his or her own pace, so be supportive — not judgmental.
Act with integrity and humility. Be willing to own your mistakes, and communicate with honesty and transparency.
Address issues directly. When issues are left unaddressed, anxiety ensues and people fill the silence with their own interpretations.
Want to be a great manager?
While leaders build vision, great managers execute the strategies needed to achieve that vision. They develop plans for their team, establish clear expectations for success, provide on-going and meaningful feedback, and hold themselves and others accountable. Managers — just like leaders — need to build trust with their staff.
But here’s where things get tricky. Managers — unlike leaders — are on the frontlines of handling different personalities among employees, resolving interoffice arguments and guiding staff in their day-to-day efforts. While these tasks aren’t always glamorous and won’t make you a household name (like the Steve Jobs of the world) they are critical to a company’s operations. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s an important truism to keep in mind.
Building effective management skills takes time and effort. Here are some tips to remember:
Focus on understanding. Listen to what people need from you to be successful. Unlike leaders, managers do need to maintain some focus on what employees do for you. However, the best managers can tie those tasks not just to the company’s broader vision, but also to employees’ professional goals. This creates a symbiotic relationship that ultimately boosts productivity.
Keep staff implementing the details. Provide clear expectations about who will be held accountable for what, how deadlines will be tracked and what success looks like at the end of the day. Ensure that workflows are executed effectively by remaining connected to your team.
Hold people accountable. This requires that you provide consistent constructive feedback, and if it comes from a place of care and support it will be received well.
Treat people with respect. If you do, they will go to great lengths to work hard for you. Ensure that your team knows you will have their back, and you are there for support.
Immerse yourself in learning. Stay current on best management practices, and strive to improve for your team and the organization as a whole.
Seek a mentor or coach. Find someone to help you grow. Your company and your team will appreciate it, as this is ultimately an investment in them.
So is your role to serve as a leader or a manager? Both roles are challenging, and understanding what it takes to be one or the other is step one on your road to success.
Katie Carr is a principal at Left Lane Advisors with over 25 years of experience in managing and developing leaders at all levels.