Manager vs Leader: What's the difference?

Tue 19 Oct 2021

Angela Tracey-Brown

Product Manager - CMI

The words 'manager' and 'leader' often get confused in organisations.

Companies often ask their 'managers' to be 'leaders' and ask their ‘leaders’ to ‘manage’ staff; however, the terms aren't mutually exclusive. 

Currently, bad management is costing the UK economy £84 billion a year! This is due to companies not understanding the skills required to be a manager/leader.

Just because you’re a manager doesn't make you a leader (and vice versa) and here's why.

What is a manager?

On a basic level, a manager is a planner. Managers meet deadlines, coordinate and manage resources, and manage risks, and budgets. Some key responsibilities of managers are to:

  • Hire staff
  • Coach employees
  • Train employees
  • Conduct performance evaluations
  • Monitor performance
  • Track and report to senior management
  • Set goals 
  • Meet divisional targets 

Managing is more practical. It's the day-to-day 'management' of people and ensuring that those planned tasks are executed on time to cost and quality.

What is a leader?

On the other hand, a leader looks at the bigger picture. A leader drives the vision and direction of a company, motivating those in the organisation to get things done. 

They manage the delivery of the vision and motivate people to engage with that vision. They are often charismatic with high emotional intelligence and seen as pathfinders. They understand the holistic view of the company but often do not understand the day-to-day activities or how the details are ironed out in order to try and meet that vision.

Why are people rarely both managers and leaders?

It's very difficult to be both a great manager and a great leader because the skills required to be an effective manager differ greatly from those required to be an effective leader. Great leaders often do not make great (or even good) managers because leading requires creativity and big-picture thinking whereas managing requires delivering on the nitty gritty.

Leaders are future-gazing, big-picture people, which differs from the skills required to be hyper-planned down to the final task and the last penny. Leaders understand the direction of travel but managers have to plan how that direction will be accomplished by managing the data and managing people.

Notoriously, Steve Jobs was a fantastic leader and visionary but a terrible, abrasive manager ,but he is known for his visionary leadership style. As a manager,  Jobs would be nearly impossible to work for, but as a brand and leader, he led Apple into groundbreaking territories.

However, it’s important to note that good leaders often recognise their shortcomings and will work on their managerial weaknesses. Even with self-improvement, often good leaders recognise that they need to be part of a team. 

Great leaders surround themselves with great managers; they have a partner in a supportive role to fulfil their shortcomings and vice versa. Both leaders and managers are essential to successful organisations – leaders push businesses forward while managers optimise performance.  

Why leaders aren't always at the top

On the other hand, leadership is not necessarily a hierarchical role. We often view the managing director or the CEO as an organisation's 'leader' but there are informal leaders everywhere, people who drive things forward. There are often employees who are visionaries for whichever area they work in and those people don't have to be senior leaders or even managers in their role.

Some people exhibit natural leadership tendencies. Along the same lines, being in a senior role doesn't automatically give you leadership qualities. Some people understand how their little part of the business can work better and lead to implement changes for the better; those are leadership qualities.

Why it's okay to be 'just' a manager

In reality, you'll either be initially much better at one or the other: a good manager or a good leader. We rarely have someone good at both roles simultaneously; they are diametrically opposed. But that's absolutely okay. The articles above seem to pit the 'leader' as a visionary who has fans, acts as a change agent, and thinks long-term; however, if every manager acted as a leader, nothing would ever get done. Managers are important but they have to be trained (like every employee) to be technically competent at their job. That's where management and project management training comes into play.

What makes a good manager?

You may be a manager (or want to be one) because you're a natural leader; however, great leaders often push themselves to develop enough management skills to get to where they want to go. If you're a natural leader (or even if you aren't), you can learn the management theory to underpin your career; otherwise, even great visionaries may not be able to move up the business. Understanding what good management looks like and understanding how to plan and manage a team are vital yet trainable skills.

The Peter principle that posits that everyone rises through a business to a level of incompetence. In other words, they may be promoted because they are great in a technical role or capacity, but find it difficult to excel and progress further.

A possible reason for this incompetence is often due to our approach to promotion, especially from technical to managerial roles. Past performance or technical skill does not naturally transfer into the broad range of skills required to manage.

Management is one of the only roles where companies assume employees will automatically know how to be successful in this technically difficult role (and they nearly always don't). You wouldn't let someone who wasn't a trained surgeon to operate on you, but you'll let people manage a team who weren't trained to do that task!

How MOL can help support managers and leaders with a CMI course

At MOL, we understand the importance of training. We offer two CMI management courses that help make your managers and leaders better at what they do.

The courses help managers understand risk management, critical path planning, the project lifecycle, change management and more. 

There are great managers out there who have been trained to be excellent managers by basing their work on existing management theories. 

Becoming a  certified manager through personal and professional development training means less stress, higher competence and mastery of measurable skills, so you can lead teams to achieve success with effective leadership and management skills.

We also offer a CMI course for project managers who are looking to develop their skills and enhance their CV.  

Get in touch with us today to find out more or read our latest news and case studies.

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