Leader vs Manager: A Difference of Purpose

For Managers

The comparison of a leader vs. a manager might seem like a distinction without a difference. Indeed, many of us use these two terms interchangeably, as if the two roles have identical functions. However, the difference between a leader and a manager is more than mere semantics. You’re unlikely to find someone who has actually been a manager confusing these two terms.

So what’s the difference between them? Are all managers leaders? Can someone be a leader but not a manager? In this article we’ll look at the main differences between a leader and a manager. We’ll break down the technical distinctions between the two roles and we’ll look at what qualities each is defined by.

Leader vs Manager

Leader vs Manager: Key Differences

If you’re scratching your head wondering what makes being a leader vs a manager different, know that you’re not the first person to ponder this question. Leaders and intellectuals in the business world have been trying to tease these two terms apart for generations. Writing for the Harvard Business Review in 1977, for instance, Abraham Zaleznik suggested that most organizations disproportionately emphasized the managerial component of running a business, focusing on exerting control and competence over organizational processes. He charged businesses with ignoring the comparatively human-oriented dimension of leadership, which involves morale, passion, inspiration, and vision.


Many of the distinctions between management and leadership involve the central distinction between systems, processes, & resources on the managerial side and humans on the leadership side. These differences manifest in what a leader vs a manager focuses on. Managers focus on work, whereas leaders focus on workers. In theory you can imagine the same team being organized by two people fulfilling the separate roles of leading and managing. The manager is oriented toward accomplishing the goal. The manager, therefore, manages the organization of resources and processes to achieve that goal. The leader, on the other hand, will focus on influencing and inspiring the workers who are working toward the shared goal.


A leader vs manager comparison can sometimes involve differences in the formal relations between people. A manager operates within a formal sphere of power. The manager has some kind of formal, hierarchical control and power over the people they manage. The leader, on the other hand, might not have any formal power. Leaders, instead, operate within a sphere of influence. They may not be specifically directing people as to what behaviors those people should be performing, but through their leadership qualities, leaders will still influence behaviors.


Another way of understanding the difference between leaders and managers is in their relationship to value. The distinction is one of counting value versus creating value. Managers oversee the distribution of resources. The manager, then, can be said to be concerned with counting value. The leader, on the other hand, is concerned with creating value. Leaders act personally to create value, and this self-example inspires others to do the same. Furthermore, leaders make decisions that enable others to create more value themselves. Managers are sometimes put in the position of limiting the ways others create value.

Qualities of a Leader vs a Manager

The differences in a leader vs a manager are not merely limited to technical functions of the roles. People who succeed as leaders have different qualities from those who succeed as managers (though of course some people have managed to succeed at both roles). Let’s take a deeper look at the qualities of a leader vs a manager.

Command vs. Example

A manager operates in a situation where their position enables them to give commands as a means of influencing others. Leaders, on the other hand, tend to influence by setting an example to inspire and inform others. Leaders, like managers, attempt to help put people in positions where they can succeed. It’s not necessarily “better” to influence as a manager does. Hierarchical structures are effective in certain contexts. Further, managers must be accountable for their subordinates in a way that leaders are not.

Culture vs. Results

This is something of an outgrowth of the previous difference, but it’s still worth noting. Managers tend to focus on results, and how they match up relative to goals, obligations, and more. Leaders, on the other hand, are more concerned with embodying a particular culture and set of values.

Present-Focused vs. Future-Focused

Managers are always responding directly to the situation on the ground in any given situation. Of course, this is a necessary function as part of a business’s efforts to meet its long-term goals. But an overemphasis on the manager’s perspective can mean a loss of long-term vision & direction.

This is where leaders come in. Leaders are oriented toward the future. Leaders help shape long-term vision for a company, without which a company would have no identity or direction. Of course, if a company only had long-term vision, with no ability to respond to the present situation, then there would be no way to build a bridge toward your desired future. That’s why it’s good to identify the qualities of a leader vs a manager, and know which are needed.


It’s easy to see why we confuse the terms leader vs manager. Both stand out among a larger group of people working toward a shared goal. But there are many differences between a leader vs a manager. They serve different functions within a team and those functions are better fulfilled by people who have certain kinds of qualities. Neither the leader nor the manager is superior to the other. Both roles have their place. Some people have been able to fulfill both roles simultaneously. Other organizations have successfully separated the two roles. And still more organizations, surely, have suffered dysfunction because of their inability to separate the two roles. Many companies haven’t done a manager vs leader comparison, so identify their needs. Which role do you more closely identify with? Which skillset do you need to focus on growing? Let us know!

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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Corporate Training, Leadership & Management