Main image of article What Distinguishes a Leader From a Manager?

Within the hierarchy of any business organization, there are obvious and necessary levels of managers who have tremendous responsibilities for keeping various business units and teams chugging along on an everyday basis. Typically, above those ranks of managers are the leaders of that organization – the top rung of forward-looking executives who collectively keep that business on its path to succeed, grow and otherwise achieve its individual goals and objectives.


So what, in my opinion, distinguishes a leader from a manager – besides their top ranking on the corporate ladder? What skills and characteristics do effective leaders embody?


Here’s my take:


  • A leader is someone who is able to naturally inspire people. This is a key skillset. Leaders have learned and developed the skills for how to genuinely inspire the folks around them. True inspiration, and a passion to succeed, usually comes naturally from within each person in an organization. But leaders know how to ignite that special spark in people from among all ranks and get them involved in the common mission toward success.


  • They have a true focus on what they want to achieve. Some call it ‘tunnel vision’. But leaders are competently able to put on blinders -- shut out the noise, ignore small distractions, and focus on precisely what they, and their employees, need to accomplish for the short-, medium-, and long-term benefits of the organization.


  • True leaders have the ability to communicate a clear vision. This means being able to effectively communicate with folks throughout the business organization, regardless of the ranks, levels, titles and regions of individual staff members. Communication skills are critically important to possess, as is the ability to talk honestly to, and engage with, everyone in a respective, inclusionary manner and at their individual level.


  • Leaders need to bring people along with them on the company journey. This is absolutely key. Leaders must be capable of rallying the troops, whether it’s leading a project, working with a client, preparing for a corporate event, expanding into a new region -- whatever. Competent leaders fully recognize that no matter how good they are, they simply cannot achieve anything worthwhile alone.


  • They have a clear idea of what they want to do. Frankly, it frustrates me to hear people ask, “What should I do next?” Astute leaders need to have a crystal-clear idea of what they want to do and where they want to be. They take the time (maybe the occasional 30 minutes or an hour) for introspection to understand what they want to do and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t want to do. They should know the career that they want and be ready to frankly discuss others’ career trajectories.


  • Great leaders don’t get fixated on titles. The best leaders that I have seen don’t get overly focused on a particular title. They resolve to always do the very best that they can, and intrinsically know that everything else will fall into place as a result. They also don’t limit themselves.


  • Managers tend to follow the processes. Good leaders, however, while following the prescribed processes are always eyeing ways to make things better/more efficient. This can include redeveloping processes that better lend themselves to the current and prospective needs of the organization.


  • Managers are generally concerned with getting their allocated work done. Leaders, on the other hand, seek to help others succeed who are outside their remit. This often includes proactively taking on additional responsibilities, tasks and activities that will serve to benefit the many.

The truth is that at any organization -- whether small, medium, large or a true colossus, relatively flat, strategically laddered or highly layered -- the support, collaboration and vision of leaders, managers and a host of other dedicated individuals is required to keep that business moving forward. In reality, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being either a leader or a manager as both are critically important. Which one are you?

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