6 key differences between leaders and managers

The skills and traits that differentiate great leaders from good managers

The terms leader, team leader, and manager seem to be used interchangeably, swapped around and just thrown out there to describe anyone in a position of authority. But what’s really the difference between a manager and a leader? Does a leader always have to be part of the C-Suite? At Let’s Talk Talent (LTT), we don’t think so.

We can all think of someone we’ve met who was a great leader, and those people weren’t always our team managers either. They could have been part of the mailroom staff, or even leading a garage band. So, if the role itself doesn’t determine leadership, what does?

“It’s a certain charisma, a secret sauce that’s hard to create from scratch or even understand,” says Jo, MD at LTT.

Leaders seem to galvanise others, create energy, and generate motivation wherever they go. And right now, leaders are more crucial than ever in this post-pandemic reality. After so many dizzying changes and quick adaptations, businesses need clear strategies and a common goal for everyone to rally around. Employees are rethinking their priorities; they want more than salary. Staff need passion and purpose in order to feel that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, and leaders can help bring this to the business.

So, if leaders are so important, how can organisations best support them? Should the same mix of on-the-job training, networking and formal learning be used for both leaders and managers (see our previous article on the 70/20/10 learning and development ratio)?

Let’s have a look at the main differences between leadership and management, so you can find the exact right combination of arts, science, and humanities for both groups and optimise their effectiveness.

1. Leaders care

We are absolutely not saying that managers don’t care, but leaders often possess a more human-centric set of skills, which includes high empathy, care, and a good level of emotional intelligence (EQ). This was demonstrated by Google’s Project Oxygen, which highlighted the main traits of great leaders, most of which do not have all that much to do with technical skills. Rather, they focus on good communication, empowerment, and coaching capabilities.

Managers, on the other hand, often have to focus on processes and the day-to-day management of the business. Whilst some soft skills are required, their expertise really lies in the kind of technical and procedural knowledge that can help their teams reach operational objectives in a more concrete way.

2. Leaders have a vision

Leaders have a responsibility to set a clear vision for the rest of the business to rally around. They operate at a higher level, focussing on the long-term future, driving teams forward and managing wider portfolios.

Managers however, are busy ensuring the objectives set by leadership are reached. This implies coordinating their people, projects, and processes (the 3Ps) needed to fulfil organisational goals on a daily basis. In short, leaders set the vision, managers make it happen.

3. Leaders want to make a difference 

Leaders bring purpose into the mix. But what is purpose without passion? Great leaders are driven, and drive others forward by sharing that passion with the rest of the organisation. “This really is what makes someone a leader,” adds Jo; “It’s about bringing both purpose and passion to the business.”

So what’s the role of managers? Whilst they do not set the direction of the organisation, they do optimise the processes and tasks that come with it. “Leaders are the conductors, while managers head specific sections of the orchestra, and make sure everyone does their job as they should,” says Jo.

4. Leaders want others to thrive 

We’ll admit there can be a bit of a grey area as both leaders and managers have an important role to play in developing their people. But the way we see it, leaders are about unlocking potential and supporting high performance. Their role is to coach and empower, and be the talent scouts of the business. They also need to present staff with the ‘art of the possible’, and give them an idea of potential destinations, for managers to then take over and handle the ongoing development of their employees’ careers.

Managers have to set clear objectives and monitor progress, give regular developmental feedback, as well as reward and recognise their team members. They are in charge of the performance management process, and ensure their team performs highly on a daily basis.

5. Leaders empower others

The pandemic has seen a shift in employees’ priorities, and the research is clear: people want autonomy at work. They want to determine how, when, and where they work, and what they do. That’s where leaders come in: to empower and trust their teams, and provide them with the tools they require to take charge of their work environment.

Managers are more hands-on: they focus on daily admin, processes, and overall getting things done. Whilst there is sometimes a tendency to micromanage, it has to be said that modern managers are increasingly conscious of making sure that tasks are indeed completed in a timely fashion, whilst giving their teams the autonomy to manage how they want to get it done.

6. Leaders are role models 

Leaders have a responsibility to create an inclusive and psychologically safe environment where workers can be fully themselves. While this may sound like a nice to have, Project Oxygen has proven that psychological safety is essential for innovation to occur, and an organisation that does not innovate cannot survive.

This isn’t to say that managers don’t do the same, but it’s not a given. We’ve all worked for managers who push us to be the best that we can be. However, we’ve also worked for managers who have micromanaged us, taken credit for our work, or made us feel like we couldn’t question the way things were done.


At LTT, we always say that everyone has talent, it’s just a matter of finding what for. We know that leaders are needed to bring clarity, set the direction, and give the team purpose and passion. We also know that managers are equally as important. Without them, the beautifully galvanising organisational strategy that was set would simply remain a theoretical concept. They are responsible for managing the processes, projects, and people that need to be put into place for any goals to be reached.

So, can a manager be a great leader? Of course! Leadership is about motivating others so they can thrive and be their best selves at work.

Good leaders are more in demand than ever before, as many businesses had to change, adapt, or pivot following the pandemic and employees often need a clear direction. This is why it’s key for HR departments not to forget their leadership teams when it comes to both professional and personal development, and to invest in leadership training. But this is a two-pronged approach, and managers are also here to help! By giving your managerial staff the tools they need to manage their teams effectively, whilst still maintaining a human-centric focus, you are actively supporting your leadership team at the same time.

Take the next step

If you’d like to know how you can give leadership all the tools they need to feel energised and focused, have a look at our range of training resources. They include Coach on Demand (a tailored one-to-one coaching solution) and Leader of the Pack (a webinar for both leaders and managers).

You could also check out our complete guide to supporting managers in your organisation.

Want to better support your managers?
Comments are closed.