Is your career headed toward management or leadership?

If your career advancement goals include becoming a leader or manager in your company, it's vital that you understand the difference between those two roles. For while they share some things in common, these two roles require different traits and skill sets. Understanding the difference between a leader and a manager is key to learning which skills and traits you need to develop to be more effective in your chosen role.

In this post, we'll explore the differences between a leader vs. a manager and the key traits and skills that each must have to be successful. We'll also provide some important tips that you can use to improve your leadership and management abilities.

What does it mean to be a leader?

The word leader is thrown around so casually these days that it's easy to confuse the term with other management-related roles. However, being a leader is about more than simply managing people. Leadership is about being able to motivate and inspire others to join you in pursuit of a common objective. When you're a true leader, the members of your team will follow you because they choose to do so, without being compelled by your power to make them do what you want.

Leaders are also focused on the big picture, as they rely on a visionary approach to setting and achieving goals. They challenge norms and expectations and are continually focused on whether their organization is trying to solve the right problems. This contrasts with managers, whose role focuses more on how objectives are being met. Leadership requires thinking outside of the box to create innovative strategies that drive an organization's activities in pursuit of a specific mission.

True leadership is also inspirational. In fact, the most powerful tool that any leader has is their ability to use a variety of interpersonal skills to inspire and motivate others to join them. They rely on the trust and loyalty of their followers to achieve their ends, rather than raw power and control. Great leaders understand this and work to empower their team members, to ensure that each person feels that they have a stake in their collective success.

Essential leadership traits and skills

While there are a whole host of skills and characteristics that every leader must have in some measure, we've focused on six that are among the most vital for leadership success.

 1.      Innovation

There has long been a theory that history is shaped by great leaders. While that theory has typically referred to the realm of geopolitics, it could also be said to apply to the business world. Leaders like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Walt Disney all made undeniable contributions to the business world, with innovations that continue to impact our lives on a daily basis. Their creativity and ability to push boundaries helped to drive innovation and spur ongoing change - in some cases, change that continued long after they passed away.

To be a successful leader, you must have the same commitment to innovation that those great leaders possessed in abundance. Leaders are always on the search for the next great idea that can benefit people and their company. Their focus on innovation extends from new product ideas to new strategies and plans that can expand their organization's capabilities and drive efforts to achieve the company mission.

2.      Inspiration and motivation

As we mentioned earlier, one of the leader's most important traits is the ability to inspire others. This trait involves using effective and compelling communication to earn followers' trust and commitment to the leader's vision. But inspiration is only part of the equation for success. You can inspire as many people as you would like, but that inspiration will mean nothing if those followers are not also motivated to act on those feelings.

That's where the leader's ability to motivate others comes into play. An effective motivator can inspire followers to make the leader's mission their own. Once they are motivated in that way, those followers will readily share the leader's vision, align themselves with strategic plans designed to fulfill the mission, and bring their own unique talents to bear in pursuit of those shared objectives.

3.      Great communication

All great leaders need to possess a mastery of communication, since this skill is so essential for conveying their vision and goals to others. Of course, that doesn't mean that every leader needs to have Shakespearean writing skills or the oratory talents of Churchill. It does mean, however, that they need to be able to deliver compelling messages that can inspire their listeners to adopt the leader's point of view.

The style of communication is less important than the inspirational impact of the message. Some leaders are bombastic and entertaining, while others are plain spoken and humble. There are leaders who rely on humor. Others focus on supportive language designed to create a sense of empowerment in the listener. The one thing all those styles share in common, when used by effective leaders, is an ability to encourage the audience to follow the leader.

4.      Vision

All strong leaders possess the ability to focus on the big picture. This trait enables them to develop and maintain a clear vision of what they want their organization to become. Vision is future-focused and informs the company's overall mission. Visionary leaders help their team to understand that vision, so that they buy into the organization's mission, its goals, and any strategies that are designed to achieve those aims.

Developing your own visionary streak is an important part of becoming an effective leader. Without vision, you'll struggle to communicate your goals in a way that inspires others to follow you. On the other hand, being able to convey a compelling vision can empower you to earn the trust and loyalty of the team members you need to achieve your business goals.

5.      Team empowerment

Good leaders understand that they cannot be everywhere at once or do everything themselves. To get around that limitation, they focus on empowering every member of their team. With the right direction, these employees will adopt the leader's vision and mission statement and effectively become leaders themselves.

Empowerment has the added benefit of enabling every member of a team to become the best version of themselves. It inspires greater employee engagement and a commitment to self-development that can pay huge dividends for the entire organization. By empowering their followers, effective leaders are able to create force multiplication within their organization that increases team satisfaction, productivity, and rapid advancement toward the company's goals.

6.      Decisiveness

Leaders also need to be decisive - capable of making clear decisions to ensure that their organization continues to move forward. Any examination of leaders in the business world would quickly reveal that this trait is one that all great leaders possess. Of course, that doesn't mean that every decision always ends up being the right one. Still, the ability to quickly decide between various options and stick with that decision until facts and circumstances dictate a change is one of the most important leadership traits.

What is the role of management?

Management is the art of organizing and coordinating people and resources to ensure that a leader's vision and mission become reality. While leaders are almost singularly focused on big picture concepts like vision and mission, managers tend to place more emphasis on the day-to-day tasks and issues that help companies to achieve those broader goals.

As a result, managers focus more on how things get done, since their job is to implement the strategies that leaders create. Managers need to be able to direct every resource available to them to achieve the company's goals, including people, raw materials, and tools. Effective managers work to understand the personalities and capabilities of every member of their team, so that they can harness those talents and energies to meet deadlines, achieve performance goals, and make a positive impact on their organization's business activities.

Some managers possess at least some leadership traits, but most rely on some form of control to ensure that their teams achieve the company's goals. That authority enables them to handle important duties like creating schedules, setting goals, monitoring performance, and allocating resources. While leaders focus on the visionary aspects of the business, managers are busy directing the team as it implements the company's strategies and plans.

Essential management traits and skills

Understanding the difference between leaders and managers also requires you to recognize the core skills and characteristics needed for effective management. Again, we have identified six core traits and abilities that every good manager needs to be effective in their role.

1.      Organization

Managers are responsible for organizing resources, processes, and people in ways that enable objectives and goals to be reached in the most efficient manner possible. As a result, organizational skills are an absolute necessity for effective management. But organization is about more than just managing flowcharts and schedules. It's a form of influence that managers can wield, to control how their team members perform the tasks and duties that get things done.

2.      Delegation

Just as leaders use empowerment as a force multiplier within their organizations, managers can use delegation to expand their reach and influence. Even the best managers can only do so much in a day. By delegating responsibilities to subordinates, good managers can effectively empower members of their team in ways that expand their managerial reach.

3.      Planning

Leaders create broad strategies and plans that managers are expected to execute in furtherance of the company's mission. However, managers also need to be able to create plans to achieve efficient execution of a leader's vision. The difference is that the manager's planning will involve more detailed task and resource allocation designed to flesh out those broader strategies. It's the manager's job to determine which people, resources, and processes are used to implement a strategy.

4.      Empathy

Just as leaders need to be empathetic if they want to be able to get others to follow them, managers must also have the ability to understand what their employees are thinking and feeling. For managers, however, this is a trickier endeavor. After all, a good manager needs to be able to balance their empathy for their people with their need to maintain control over the team's efforts. To achieve that balance, great managers need to be skilled active listeners, good communicators, and resolute decision-makers.

5.      Problem solving

Managers need to be able to solve problems, since challenges arise on a near-constant basis. The best managers are experienced in analyzing problems, coming up with potential solutions, and making the decisions needed for any given situation. In most instances, these problem-solving skills need to be applied in real-time to ensure that disruptions in the workplace are kept to a minimum.

Of course, different types of managers approach these processes in different ways. Some insist on relying on their own judgment for each solution, while others take a more democratic approach and seek their team members' input. In the end, the management style is of less importance than the manager's ability to successfully resolve problems that could negatively impact his team's work.

6.      Attention to detail

Here, the manager's role is almost exactly the opposite of the leader's. While the leader focuses on a broad perspective, the manager must be in tune with every small detail within their sphere of influence. That means maintaining a clear focus on every employee's capabilities and performance, the goals that need to be met to achieve the mission, and the smallest details related to productivity, profitability, and resource allocation. Even though the manager's job is to manage people, their concerns encompass the full range of business activity they oversee.

Leader vs. manager: four core differences

Now that you have a better understanding of what leaders and managers do, it can be helpful to look at some key differences between these two roles. To help you see how leadership and management are two separate things, consider these four key differences.

Leaders create visions; managers execute them

While leaders and managers share a focus on planning, the leader is the one who creates the organization's vision. They form that vision in their minds, shape its narrative, and deliver the message in a compelling way that gets buy-in from all stakeholders. The manager's role is to use tactical planning and effective marshaling of resources to achieve collective goals that bring that vision to life.

Leaders focus on why and what; managers focus on when and how

Good leaders are always asking why. They want to know why people suggest certain ideas, why certain strategies have not produced the right results, and what needs to happen to achieve their vision. These are big-picture questions that help them to develop innovative ideas and strategies.

For managers, however, the big questions usually involve issues of when and how something can be done. That's because managers have to focus on how strategies and plans can help them to achieve their performance goals, and when things need to be done. That information is more useful for them than any questions that go to the larger vision.

Leaders rely on influence; managers rely on control

One of the biggest differences between leaders and managers relates to how they acquire and maintain power. For leaders, power comes from influence. They inspire others, gain trust and loyalty, and use that influence to direct their followers. Managerial power, on the other hand, tends to come from their ability to control people and resources.

Leaders challenge the status quo; managers work within it

When it comes to the status quo, leaders are the rebels who challenge tired ideas and promote change. Their focus on innovation to achieve long-term objectives necessarily works against entrenched status quo interests that are resistant to change. Meanwhile, managers are more likely to work within any existing system than openly challenge the status quo.

Leader vs. manager: which are you?

Of course, the big question for you is simple: are you a leader or a manager - or even some combination of the two? This is an important question to answer if your career aspirations include a possible leadership or management role. Are you more interested in organizing and directing people and resources to achieve someone else's vision? If so, then you may already have managerial inclinations that can be improved to make you a great manager. On the other hand, if you are a big thinker who enjoys influencing others and inspiring them to follow your lead, you might have the makings of a great leader.

In the end, it doesn't really matter which option you choose as long as you're comfortable with the role. The world needs leaders and managers to advance civilization and meet customer needs. You just need to figure out where your talents and interests lie and commit to enhancing the traits and skills you need for your chosen role.

Essential tips to help you improve your leadership and/or management skills

Whether you want to become a better leader or a more effective manager, the following tips can help to start you on a path to career advancement in those roles:

Find a role model

One of the best ways to focus on elevating your leadership or management skills is to identify role models that you can emulate. What qualities do they possess that make them effective in their roles? Are there certain skills and traits that they employ to make them more effective leaders or managers? Study their success and focus on replicating it in your career.

Strengthen key soft skills

Soft skills are critical for effective leadership and management, so you should always be working to enhance those abilities. Focus on critical skills like communication, persuasion, decisiveness, and adaptability, and look for opportunities to expand those capabilities.

Become a lifelong learner

Your career education should not end with college or technical school. Instead, you should commit to lifelong learning. That could mean something as simple as a continual focus on skill development through online learning, videos, podcasts, or attending seminars and completing relevant certifications.

Cultivate your network

Strong leaders typically maintain effective networks, both online and in the real world. You should always be cultivating and expanding your own network so that you have access to the best available advice and examples as you develop your leadership traits and skills.

Complete formal management training

If you're serious about advancing in management, it can also be helpful to complete a formal training program to better prepare you for that role. There are many great programs available at community colleges or online venues.

Become more goal-oriented

Leaders and managers need to be goal-oriented if they want to succeed in their objectives. One of the most important things that you can do to further your career in either role is to develop a goal-based mindset.

Is your resume telling your story effectively?

When it comes to leader vs. manager and determining the right role for you, a proper understanding of the differences between leadership and management is invaluable. For while leaders and managers may share some traits and skills in common, their roles can be very different indeed. Hopefully, the information and tips contained in this post can help you to focus your attention on improving the traits and skills you need to succeed in your chosen leadership or management career path.

Does your resume have a compelling story to tell about your leadership or management abilities? Be sure to get your free resume review today and allow our resume professionals to help ensure that your resume has what it takes to land you that next great interview and job offer.

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