Leader or Manager?

By Gary Clayton

Are you managing or leading your team?

Are you leading or managing your team?

Which are you? Leader or manager? In our culture, we tend to use the two terms interchangeably. Yet their definitions show a significant difference between them.

Manager definitions tend to state “a person who conducts business or whose work or profession is management.” Definitions for leader focus on “a person who directs a military unit or who has commanding authority or influence.” There is a distinction in that the manager is focused on work while the leader is focused on people.

In this blog, I go one step further and say the competent leader is one who accomplishes objectives by positively influencing others to want to do – and actually complete - the necessary work.

“Positively influencing” is an important concept in competent leadership. While “carrot and stick” and “touchy-feely” may be useful tools occasionally, they are not a significant part of the competent leader’s skill set. Competent leaders know better, less coercive and less manipulative ways of achieving the group’s objectives.

Are the skills necessary for management and leadership the same? No. Management skills are those that inform us how to get the work completed. We typically learn them from books, manuals and classroom experiences. There is a focus on control. Leadership skills are “the sum total of your ability to help the group achieve its goals and maintain an effective working relationship among members. Just as you learn the skills for math or science, you learn how to provide leadership” (Johnson & Johnson).

Leadership Skills are Learned

Many of us are used to thinking that leaders are born and we don’t stand a chance of becoming one. Yet neuroscience is proving Johnson & Johnson to be correct: leadership skills can be learned just like math or science. Some people may be a bit more adept at mastering these skills, but leaders are made, not born, through learning and practice. It’s the practice that makes the big difference. We can learn a lot through classrooms and books, but practical experience really makes your leadership skills come alive.

As to which are you primarily, manager or leader, think about how you conduct yourself every day. If your focus on getting the task completed leaves you barely aware of your colleagues and staff, then you may be managing, but you probably aren’t leading in the way a proficient leader does. If your staff has to check in with you on even small decisions, then you are probably managing. If you focus on keeping your staff motivated to want to do the tasks at hand and building their ability to work effectively together, then you are using your leadership skills.


Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2003). Joining together: group theory and group skills. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. pg 176.

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Categories : Approaches & Styles