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  1. Blog
  2. Management
  3. January 24, 2022

When to Manage vs. Lead: 6 Important Differences Between the Roles

Time to take charge

Woman who knows when to manage
Photo courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Solutions

When it comes to knowing when to manage and when to lead, the distinction may seem a little complex. Leadership and management are often used interchangeably as terms, but there are some important differences to note when it comes to the two approaches in the workplace. 

Consider a vacation. In this scenario, the leader is responsible for choosing the overall destination spot, and the manager is responsible for navigating the specific directions you need to take to get from Point A to Point B. One cannot exist without the other—despite their differences, they’re mutually dependent on each other.

Let’s take a deeper look at the similarities and differences between leadership and management and review appropriate times when to lead and when to manage. 

Read more: 7 Types of Leadership: Strengths, Weaknesses & Discovering Your Style

Leader vs. manager: What’s the difference?

Before diving into more precise roles, let’s get the definitions of leaders and managers straight. 

Leaders

Leadership is defined as the ability of an individual to influence and guide members of an organization. Basically, a leader’s job is to provide a high-level vision to their team and motivate them to be a part of a mission that’s larger than their individual work. They’re the fearless change-agents who provide support and inspiration to their employees, but they rarely get involved in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day decisions. True leaders are comfortable challenging the status quo and are constantly in search of innovative improvements to their organizations. 

Managers

Management is defined by an individual directing and controlling a group of people to reach a goal. A manager’s responsibility is to turn the leader’s vision into reality by setting and measuring smaller goals for their teams in order to reach the finish line. They’re the strategic and operational planners who oversee project management, ensure deadlines are met, and make sure everyone is working toward a common objective. They refine systems and processes to streamline their team’s efficiency, and contrary to leaders, management’s goal is to minimize and control risk.

Read more: 6 Expert-Approved Tips for Excelling in Middle Management

What qualities do managers and leaders share?

While there are certainly distinctions between the two roles, there are also several qualities that they share. 

Attention to detail

Leaders have to pay attention to small issues in order to come up with innovative ideas or solutions. For managers, attention to detail is a critical skill to have when overseeing goal-setting and project management.

Communication

Both leaders and managers have strong written and verbal communication skills and have to actively listen to their followers and subordinates.

Goal-setting

Leaders set tall or big picture goals, and managers subsequently set supporting smaller goals.

Interpersonal skills

Leaders have to possess the ability to inspire and encourage others to believe in their vision, and managers must have good interpersonal skills to build united teams and resolve conflict. To do their jobs well, both must be respected by their subordinates.

Problem-solving

Leaders search for solutions that’ll benefit the company as a whole, and managers problem-solve by tweaking and refining fundamental operations.

Read more: The Best of the Best: 16 Management Books for Every Kind of Leader

6 ways managers and leaders differ

1. Leaders have followers, and managers have subordinates. 

Because a leader’s mission is to inspire, good ones have loyal followers who believe they’ll gain intrinsic value from trusting in the leader’s mission to make something better—they’re inherent promoters of the leader’s personal brand. A manager’s authority is bestowed on them by the leader, and they tell their subordinates which tasks to accomplish. In other words, leaders are more people- and relationship-focused, whereas managers are process-oriented. 

2. Leaders create change, and managers create stability. 

Even when processes are flowing seamlessly, leaders are still seeking ways to improve. When they envision a very distant goal for the company’s future, it’s the manager's job to create a stable path toward reaching that goal. The leader takes optimistic risks, and the manager shares a plan of action, provides resources in order to succeed, and checks in with employees often.

3. Leaders inspire for the long-term, and managers direct for the short-term. 

Leaders stay motivated to achieve a big lofty goal, and managers delegate shorter-term goals, providing guidance to employees on how to accomplish them.

Read more: 25+ Short-Term Goals to Strive for Right Now

4. Managers follow rules closely, and leaders thrive on out-of-the-box thinking and creativity.

Leaders feel at home when they exercise their curiosity, stand out from the crowd, and express original, unique ideas. On the other hand, managers repeat learned behaviors that they know will yield success and abide by styles of leadership that already exist.

5. A manager’s success is more tangible than a leader’s. 

Because a large portion of a leader’s job is to influence and alter attitudes, it’s more difficult to quantify and measure success in the role. However, for managers, it’s much easier to quantify if their team reached their KPI benchmark or presented a deck to stakeholders on time. 

6. Leaders ask the “what and “why,” and managers tackle the “how” and “when.” 

Essentially, leaders focus on more abstract ideas, and managers focus on concrete, rational tactics. Leaders see value in asking rhetorical questions rather than providing answers, since it empowers their employees to deploy their own creative decision-making processes, while questions from managers tend to be more practical. 

When to manage versus lead 

Knowing when to manage and when to lead helps create a united, harmonious team that functions cohesively under both positive conditions and stressful phases. When there are designated situations for leaders and managers to take charge, teams are able to better understand their individual role and perform at their top level. Below are appropriate examples of times when to manage versus lead your employees. 

When to manage your team:

  • When you need to increase productivity

  • When there are process or project issues 

  • When training new team members

  • When working toward a deadline

  • When delegating important tasks

Example: Say one of your new hires is inexperienced with a task required for a project they’ve been assigned. If they need extra assistance or training, use a hands-on management style. Explain exactly what kinds of tools and skills they’ll need in order to accomplish the task at hand, provide a clear description of the project goal and KPIs, and offer them examples so they can understand what’s expected.

When to lead your team:

  • During a crisis—like a global pandemic

  • When creating company core values

  • During creative brainstorms or team meetings

  • When going through an acquisition or merger

Example: Say that an employee makes a mistake while working on a new project. As a leader, it’s your job to set the tone for your team, so instead of instilling fear in your employee or pointing out their failure to the entire team, encourage them to recover from missteps with a calm demeanor and discuss the value in learning from mistakes. 

There are also times when the jobs will overlap. In some situations, both positions will either step up or down to help bring stability and unity to the company. For example, if a leader takes on a direct report or fills in for a manager who’s transitioning to a new role, they’ll need to utilize more operational and tactical skills. Similarly, if a manager is overseeing a larger-than-normal team, they’ll need to act more as a vision-oriented leader. The best companies need both leaders and managers to work complementary to each other to reach their collective vision of success. 

Read more: Use These 5 Thoughtful Tactics to Manage Team Burnout

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Photo of Cara Hutto

Cara Hutto

Assistant Editor

Cara Hutto is the assistant editor at InHerSight. Her writing primarily focuses on workplace rights, job searching, diversity, and allyship, and she holds a bachelor’s degree in media and journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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