The Difference Between Leaders and Managers (Definitions and Examples)

Managers are responsible. Leaders take responsibility.

The Meetingnotes Team
Last update:
March 4, 2024

In an ideal organization, there’d be no distinction between leaders and managers. 

But of course, there is. Some managers are leaders. And others are anything but... which you’ve probably experienced firsthand. 

This is a real problem because managers have such an outsized impact on the experience of their direct reports and, by extension, on the culture of an organization.

Fortunately, you can hone your leadership skills—whether you’re a manager or not—and become a more effective guardian of your company culture.

Leadership and Management Defined

Before you dive into what you need to do to improve your leadership skills, you need a clear definition of a leader, a manager, and what distinguishes a leader from a manager. 

Leaders influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Again, anyone—from a sales rep to an accountant—can influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute. But that doesn’t make them a manager.

Managers control a person or group of people to accomplish a goal. Their power comes from their position in the organizational hierarchy and their subordinates must do what they say.

Managers are appointed to their position by an executive decision. Leaders earn their position through their actions, beliefs, and personality.

The Relationship Between Leadership and Management

Not all leaders are good managers. Nor are managers necessarily good leaders. Managers must be organized, process-oriented, and able to direct others. Leaders must be able to influence others and challenge the status quo. 

In other words, leadership and management skills don’t always translate from one role to the other. But when an employee can both manage and lead, the organization benefits immeasurably. 

This is because of the nature of the management position, nowhere are the benefits of leadership more highly leveraged than in this position.

Managers who are good leaders nurture new leaders among their direct reports. They enable and inspire others to do their best work. 

And they do this without the time-consuming, wasteful act of micromanagement. 

Example of Leadership vs. Management

At Hugo, we emphasize the importance of operating as a coach rather than a manager. For us, this is an easier way to think about leadership vs. management.

For example, imagine you’re a manager and a member of your team approaches you with a problem. 

As the manager, you listen to the problem. You ask a few questions to clarify the constraints of the problem and to understand the goal. Then, you provide concrete action steps to solve the problem. Your team member goes off and implements your solution.

Now, imagine you’re a coach and your player approaches you with a problem. 

Again, you listen to the problem. Except this time, you’re listening not just so you can understand the constraints of the problem and the goal. You’re listening so you can understand the problem and assess your player’s understanding of the problem.

Then, you ask questions, not to clarify the problem in your own mind, but to clarify it in the mind of your player. As a leader, your role is to help your team members articulate their challenges and their goals, and then find their own answers.

Not only will this approach make your team member more committed to putting their ideas into action, but they’ll also be better equipped to tackle future problems.


The Basics of Leadership: How to Hone Your Skills and Be a Better Leader

So you know what leadership looks like, but do you know how to get there?

First, dispel any notion that you can’t be a leader. Maybe you won’t look or act like the leaders you admire, but everyone can lead in their own way.

Then follow these tips from 10X Culture, a free ebook which pulls from the lessons of innovators like Zoom and Atlassian.

Use language carefully

Effective leaders communicate differently. 

They are clear communicators who take the time to distill complex ideas into brief, simple messages that their audience understands and can act on. They also know how to use storytelling to ensure their message resonates.

Leaders are also empathetic speakers, in tune with how their words are received so they can respond appropriately. Finally, leaders speak decisively, using action-oriented terms to ensure their team connects their activities to the leader’s broader vision.

Practice your improvisational leadership skills

In improv, actors must be fully present so they can make split-second decisions about where to take the story. 

Similarly, leaders must be in the moment, actively listening to their team members and paying attention to non-verbal cues. In this way, good leaders take in as much information as they can so they can make good, quick decisions. 

Like improv actors, leaders must take risks if an organization hopes to come up with innovative solutions. So encourage your team members to open themselves up to and embrace new ideas. If they’re hesitant, lead by example.

Rethink your role

Manager or otherwise, anyone can be a leader at their organization. So if you’re not a manager, don’t let that stop you from aiming to be a positive influence among your colleagues.

And if you are a manager, stop thinking of yourself as a manager and start thinking of yourself as a coach. Coaches manage the team while also making it more effective. They develop their employees into leaders. They don’t just tell people what to do.

Use goals and objectives

Empower team members by highlighting objectives and key results (OKRs) and giving them SMART goals

Rather than outlining every step, leaders know how to let employees solve their own problems, while still helping them, to encourage autonomy. 

Establishing OKRs and SMART goals makes this much easier because it creates a clear, high-level framework for success. It also helps define what success looks like, something a leader should always be clear about.

What Kind of Leader Will You Be?

While the basics of being an effective leader are universal, leaders themselves are a diverse group with vastly different approaches. 

Harriet Tubman risked her life to rescue enslaved people and deliver them to freedom. She led an armed expedition during the Civil War. And she petitioned tirelessly to end slavery. Because of these and many more deeds, even after her passing, Tubman remains a symbol of courage, freedom, and leadership. 

Others like Mahatma Gandhi, Alan Turing, Frida Kahlo, and Anne Frank—each in their own way—altered history through their courage to lead.

And you can do the same.


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