Are You A Manager Or A Leader?

The client sitting across the table sipped his coffee and leveled a stare at me. “What I need,” he said, “is not more leaders. I need followers that will follow and managers that will manage.” When I asked him to expand a bit on this, here was his paraphrased response:

We have enough leaders. I’m not looking for the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or anyone who feels empowered to create and follow their own vision. My company [a technical services provider] has a vision and a strategy. We are growing and customers are giving us more work. I desperately need smart people, creative people, thoughtful people and decent human beings who will pitch in when asked and get the job done. And I need managers who “get” the vision, focus on “what is,” manage resources effectively, close projects and do all this while pulling the team forward in a constructive way.

Let me unpack this a bit. His comment is not new. The debate and confusion over what separates leaders from managers has been going on since 1977 when Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik published an article with the deceptively mild title “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Traditional management theories were missing half the picture, argued Zaleznik. What was missing, he said, was the half filled with “inspiration, vision, and human passion—which drive corporate success.” Another HBS professor, John P. Kotter, extended Zaleznik’s insights by arguing in his 1990 best-selling book “What Leaders Really do” that leaders are different from managers because “they don’t make plans; they don’t solve problems; they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” The difference between management and leadership, said Kotter, is that “management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.”

My client’s challenge is a great illustration of the difference between management and leadership. He, the leader of the fast-growing technical services firm, felt his role was to cope with change; in the market, in his customer base, perhaps even changes in his industry. What he needed were managers who could help his followers cope with complexity while they worked to achieve the vision; the traditional rubric of planning, budgeting, organizing, aligning and motivating people, and problem-solving.

Where are you in this debate? Are you a manager or a leader?

A flood of content cites two broad administrative categories: manager and leader. Is there a distinction, or are the terms one and the same? The designations are sometimes used interchangeably; other times, people draw a significant distinction.

Why does it matter? After all, everyone has to report to someone, and people want to make the best of what they’re given.

But the distinction is important because employees’ impressions of their administrators can spark or sink careers. It’s therefore important to recognize the conspicuous and more nuanced differences and similarities between managers and leaders.

The definitions are far from straightforward, and they’re the subject of much debate. If you’ve categorized yourself as one vs. the other, you’ve likely been influenced by specific definitions you’ve read and the ones you prefer. You’ll rarely be told what others make of your administrative style. You’re riding on the impression you have of yourself, which ultimately determines how you lead people.

Any complex comparison reveals a definite overlap between managers and leaders. Both have people to oversee. Both want to make a difference and be successful, as guided by their definition of success. Each will deal with ups and downs, with people who are helpful and those who obstruct progress.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, many well-known companies do very little to distinguish between management and leadership. I can’t tell you how many of my workshop participants who come from big-box companies you would instantly recognize assert that their many managers and leaders assume their roles without much formal training or preparation. Though some common ground exists, there are numerous dissimilarities.

So what IS the difference between management and leadership? Mindset is the primary distinction. Business executive and philanthropist Vineet Nayar stated in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders.” The way you tackle administration helps decide whether you manage or lead.

What do you think? Do you focus on yourself (the manager’s focus) or on others (the hallmark of a leader)? I’d love to hear from you.


David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D. is an author, master educator, and leadership expert with documented success in public, private, domestic, and international sectors. David is a Professor of Leadership at the University of Arkansas Grantham, International Faculty at Jesuit Worldwide Learning, and a member of the Board of Directors at the Rotary Fellowship of Leadership Education and Development. With his son, he is co-author of "Servant Leadership Lessons for Middle School" available on Amazon.

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. For leadership development and coaching executives we use two definitions for the right mindset.

    1. Managers use people to support the organization.
    2. Leaders use the organization to support people.

    I feel there is a spectrum between leaders and managers. However, the more you go into the overlap, the more you get into the fuzziness of work styles.

  2. Leadership and management are two distinct and complementary modalities of action, each characterized by its own functions and activities. Not all individuals can be effective both in the direction and in management. Some have the skills to be excellent managers but not to be effective leaders. Others have enormous potential for leadership but, for various reasons, have struggled to be effective managers. Successful companies are those that take into account both types of individuals and are committed to integrate them in the organization.
    Personally I tend to summarize arguing that management measuring itself with the complexity. An effective management produces a certain degree of order and coherence in key organizational dimensions. On the contrary, the leadership measuring itself with the change.One of the reasons why the leadership has become so crucial in recent years is attributable to increasingly competitive and uncertain economic environments. In order to survive and to be competitive, are required substantial changes and, with increasing of changes, it intensifies the demand for leadership.
    The two figures must work together, complementing each one with the other. Successful companies are those that take into account both types of individuals and are committed to integrate them in the organization.

  3. Great Article David. I differ a bit in what i believe but I am always open to new insights. I would say Both leaders and managers are very important in life. Two sides of one coin. Great leaders will need to have management skills and great managers will need to have leadership skills. One does not diminish the other.

  4. I think it is overly simplistic and narrow to define a leader as a visionary and a manager as one who juggles issues, people, and problems. A visionary is not a leader if he/she doesn’t have followers. If the leader can’t manage the followers then the vision never gets put into play. Likewise, if a manager can’t lead by inspiring his/her reports and managing change then that person is not much of a manager.

    Instead of trying to define differences, I think most organizations would do well to develop the common traits and skill needs of both their “leaders” and their “managers”.

  5. This is a perfect question. I don’t think that there is a either/or answer. Those qualities of leadership – being able to connect the workforce to the greater mission – are crucial, down to the first line manager. And as you say, a bunch of visionaries who can’t produce are a drain rather than a help. Your post points out that we try to solve individual problems with global research, rather than addressing them in situ. In my mind, that’s what the leader at the very top does….set the stage with his direct reports by setting expectations, and developing the skills needed to achieve results. If that approach cascaded down through the organization, imagine what could happen. Nice thought-provoker – thanks.

    • Thank you! This did indeed come from a conversation with a client who wondered how to create this effect in his team. He is also astute enough to know he wanted to be careful not to quash the dreams of the followers.