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The similarities and differences between leaders and managers

Difference between a leader and manager

This article was written by Dr. Brian Smith.

People often use the terms management and leadership interchangeably, although they’re not the same. While some individuals may be both the manager and leader of their organization or department, this doesn’t make the words synonymous. The two are still distinct roles held by one or more persons. While these roles are unique, they work together to ensure the organization achieves its objectives.   

What is a leader?

The concept of leadership has a broad meaning. Unfortunately, agreement on a single definition has long eluded researchers and leaders alike. Most often, the qualities that define leaders are attributed to their ability to inspire their employees. Leaders can rally the team and motivate team members to achieve the organization’s goals. They do this by using their positive influence and positive leadership qualities — like remaining humble, being mindful, providing clarity through consistency, building trust, staying transparent, and having compassion and empathy. While these are skills that managers also need, leaders use them differently. Leaders use these skills to empower their team, define where the organization is going, map out the future, and ensure everyone has the skills, training, and drive to get there. Leaders uplift the entire organization to move it forward.  

What is a manager?

Managers are typically more focused on handling the operational side of the organization rather than rallying the team members. Their tasks include several administrative duties rather than team building, empowering, motivating, and inspiring employees. Managers keep a business running by upholding organizational structure, planning, and budgeting, setting timelines for goals and strategies, hiring and firing, and establishing policies and procedures. Leaders tend to be more high-level thinkers than managers, while managers tend to be more task-oriented. Managers help leaders make dreams and ideas into more concrete objectives through planning. Managers create the tangible from the leader’s intangible.   

Indeed, leaders and managers would not survive without each other. Therefore, both leaders and managers must develop the skills necessary to lead and manage a team by applying their respective qualities and having a growth mindset.   

Leaders and managers must remain humble

While it’s essential to stay humble, it’s also vital that both leaders and managers recognize their importance. For some, this is difficult to manage. It’s a very delicate balance to inhabit the space between arrogance and humility. This balance is often referred to as confident humility. If you’re afraid of coming off as too confident or arrogant, you may undermine yourself by projecting a meek or timid manner. Conversely, if you fear being viewed as unassuming or introverted, you may inflate yourself to appear more confident, which can come across as arrogance.   

So how do leaders and managers balance their behavior to achieve confident humility? One way is to practice gratitude every day. Leaders and managers who show gratitude ground themselves in reality and humble themselves in appreciation of their gifts, rather than focusing on what they don’t have.  

Another easy way for leaders and managers to practice humility is to remain present. This goes together with showing gratitude as it grounds leaders and managers in the here and now. Sometimes arrogance can stem from a lack of knowledge or a lack of wanting to know, but this doesn’t help anyone. To remain humble, leaders and managers must focus on the present and remain pragmatic about the present reality. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to focus on the present and consistently live in the present.   

Leaders and managers must remain mindful

Mindfulness is described as “…a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” Although included in the state of mindfulness is the objectivity to judge one’s thoughts and actions as valuable and positive or dangerous and unhelpful. Mindfulness has enough awareness to know when one needs to change negative behavior to become one’s best self. If you’re not evaluating yourself, you’re not changing.  

The best leaders and managers know that change is imperative to individual and organizational success. If leaders and managers don’t embrace change, organizations and their employees remain stagnant and go nowhere.   

The fundamentals of leading mindfully involve living with intention through focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion. By practicing mindfulness, leaders and managers can better focus on and apply their attention to the problems that need solving. Leaders — who are the visionaries of the organization — are more likely to bring a broad view to the aspects of an issue while also remaining mindful of the organization’s past, present, and future. Managers who take a mindful approach concentrate on solutions to an issue by staying present in the moment.   

Leaders and managers provide clarity through consistency

Clarity stems from focus and mindfulness and is often achieved through meditation practices. For leaders, clarity is also derived from experience. While this is a useful skill of managers, typically, leaders utilize this trait when working to keep the organization focused on overlying goals and objectives. Managers tend to focus on the objective in front of them.  

However, when both leaders and managers provide clarity, they can influence their teams consistently. Influencing consistently is why managers must strive to gain the skill of clarity. Likewise, while managers are gatekeepers of policies and procedures, they must consistently apply those policies and procedures. In this way, clarity and consistency go hand in hand. Clarity through consistency builds trust in employees; without trust, organizations fail.    

Leaders and managers must build trust

Trust is the foundation of any relationship, making it pertinent for all leaders and managers. Without trust, leaders and managers will have difficulty performing their job duties. One study found that leaders who uphold organizational structure instill trust in their teams.  

Leaders must create a foundation of trust in their team members to successfully motivate, inspire, and empower them. Without a strong foundation of trust, leaders have distrustful team members, rendering their position as a leader, essentially, useless.  

Managers must also remain mindful of their position as managers, upholding organizational structure. Without excellent managers to uphold organizational structure, trust in leadership diminishes, and both leaders and managers cannot motivate employees to achieve the organization’s goals.  

Leaders and managers must remain transparent

Typically, unethical leaders cannot create successful organizations where people care to give their best work. Leaders and managers who lie create distrust amongst employees and can even venture into the realm of legality. Lying has legal ramifications, and when leaders or managers of an organization are caught in a lie, they will be held accountable. Transparency and truth are always the best policy. When leaders and managers remain transparent with their employees, they build trust and respect.  

Remaining transparent with team members includes owning your mistakes and admitting when you don’t know the answer. In addition, it means not being afraid to show team members that you are human, too. Traditionally, the terms “leader” and “manager” implied that an individual is above everyone else. However, transparent leaders and managers can show that they are just everyday people who work hard and intend to cultivate the skills to be a leader or manager.  

Being transparent with team members means being honest about shortcomings, faults, and blind spots. It means being human and showing your team your authentic self.   

Leaders and managers must have emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, categorize, and manage your emotional state and recognize and categorize the emotions of others. Along with having excellent emotional intelligence, leaders and managers must have empathy and show compassion to their employees. Empathy takes emotional intelligence one step further in that it demonstrates an understanding of another’s emotional state in a way that makes the experience positive for both parties. Compassion means wishing that others won’t suffer or a desire to alleviate another’s suffering.  

Leaders and managers can learn and enhance their emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion. To intuitively understand others’ needs, leaders must recognize and understand what their team members feel to effectively motivate, empower, and inspire them. Because managers typically deal with the day-to-day organizational duties, they may, at times, have more difficulty showing empathy or compassion. Managers, however, can learn to effectively show empathy and compassion for team members by building positive habits to do so.  

The differences delineating leaders and managers have less bearing on an organization than their shared ability to develop these six qualities. All of these skills can be taught, and anyone can be a leader or manager if they’re motivated and apply themselves. Some of the best organizations are leaders and managers effectively understand these differences and similarities, lend balance to each other’s roles, and promote healthy working environments for all team members.  


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