What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?

By Andy Wright22 November 2022

What is the difference between being a leader and a manager - and is it important? IRN columnist Andy Wright shares his views on both roles, finding that experience in one is often critical to supporting excellence in the other.

Andy Wright Chief Executive Officer of Sunbelt Rentals Andy Wright, CEO of Sunbelt Rentals. (Photo: Sunbelt Rentals)

Throughout my career I can’t remember the number of times that I’ve been asked what the difference is between a leader and a manager.

People are generally intrigued by the role of the leader versus that of the manager and want to understand what the defining characteristics are for both roles.

Many articles about this subject seem to position the role of leader as more important. The general idea is that being a leader is what we should all aspire to be and that it’s people who fall short of displaying leadership capability and credentials who have to ‘settle’ for being ’just’ a manager.

I suppose the material benefits of leadership may also play a part as to why it’s seen as the role to aspire to!

It seems you have to be clearly defined as one or the other, but I’ve seen many great managers who also have superb leadership capability and vice versa, and it’s clear to me that you need both role types to create an effective organisation.

In fact, I believe that successful employees at all organisational levels ought to have a bit of both in their makeup, if they want to be the best that they can be.

When I recruit people, I am generally looking for them to have a great attitude as well as displaying leadership qualities, even if the role doesn’t require them to lead others at that time.

Leadership in rental

I want a team full of ‘captains’ who will step up and be counted when things get a little tough. I want people who step forward in times of difficulty, not ones who take a backward step. That said, it’s important that captain material individuals are also happy to play as part of a team and who recognise and value the team above the role of the individual.

The importance of demonstrated leadership capability increases as you progress your career through and upwards within an organisation. The need to lead and to be able to display leadership qualities becomes more important when you lead a business because you become responsible for setting the cultural tone, building the vision and for bringing the whole team on side and joined up in delivering on the vision.

This requires you to be able to build enthusiasm for that vision, for securing the trust of the people in the organisation who are working with you, as well as being able to inspire large groups of people to believe in the vision and, critically, in their ability to achieve it.

Being able to inspire people to achieve above and beyond what they felt they were capable of is a crucial attribute for a leader. Consequently, much of the work of a leader involves dealing with intangible concepts that can be difficult to grasp and that take time to deliver meaningful results.

Detail is critical

All of that said, once the strategy is defined and agreed upon, once the vision is clear and communicated and once the whole business is behind the high-level plan, the work now becomes focused around implementation and the management of the detail within the overall strategy.

This becomes a crucial function of management in making the plan come to life throughout the organisation. This requires planning, detailed actions, clear role definition, structure and responsibilities, regular reviews and ongoing decision making around course correction as the plan unfolds.

The ability to manage becomes critical in delivering on the plan and in achieving the goals and objectives that have been established and is far more tangible in its manifestation.

So, the answer to the question that I posed at the beginning is that both roles are crucial in creating a successful organisation. They are two sides of the same coin, intrinsically linked and neither role can truly thrive without the other. One is not more important than the other, they need each other to survive and prosper.

Execution focus

Ironically, if you aspire to hold a senior leadership position at some point in your career, the chances are you will achieve this as a direct consequence of demonstrating your ability to fulfil the role of management along the way, so by definition most leaders tend to be competent managers as well.

Put simply, leaders envision and initiate change for the betterment of the organisation and managers implement it.

And ultimately, it’s the quality of that implementation that the customer sees and feels in terms of service delivery.

Although the leadership role creates the high-level vision, mission and values which are necessary for corralling the whole team and creating a coherent plan, success will ultimately be defined by how that plan is executed, making the role of management equally critical and fundamental to the future success of any business.

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