Is a Manager the Same as a Leader?

By Rebecca Leighton

It’s a common misconception that a manager is identical to a leader. While the two share similar characteristics, the roles have fundamental differences which set them apart from one another.

Ultimately, the key difference between leaders and managers is:

  • Managers oversee teams that work for them;
  • Leaders head up teams that follow them.

To maximise resource efficiency, task completion, and team satisfaction, the person who looks after the team of a business should be both a proficient leader and an excellent business manager. The combination of characteristics generally results in a happy team who are excited to achieve good results.


What are the differences between a leader and a manager?

  • Leaders inspire, and managers execute
  • Leaders look to innovate, managers focus on what works
  • Leaders look to take risks, managers look to mitigate risk
  • Leaders focus on people, managers focus on objectives

Leaders inspire, and managers execute

A leader is an individual who has a vision and can influence a team on the task force to see it and inspire to make that vision their dream too. They believe in something big and can make others believe in it too.

A manager sees the vision and looks for ways to make it a reality. This includes setting goals and putting things in place to achieve them. They have a focus on the success of a dream, rather than the creation of it.

Leaders look to innovate, managers look for what works

Leaders are inspired by new concepts and take pride in innovation. They see a problem with an existing solution but looks for a better way to solve it despite the risks. A leader is unafraid of change in order to strive for improvement.

Managers understand the concept of “if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing”. A manager looks at what works and aims to make it better without completely disrupting it. They look to improve, but not upset systems in place to optimise efficiency.

Leaders look to take risks, managers look to mitigate risk

A leader knows how to embrace risk just as much as they seek out innovation. Because a leader is unafraid of change, they are not worried about taking risks, even if things do not work out. A leader fully understands Albert Einstein when he said:

“Failure is success in progress.”

Managers know how to control risk and look for ways to reduce it where possible. Although they understand that failure is an inevitable part of the business world, they look for ways to reduce how bad and how many times failure comes up.

Leaders focus on people, managers focus on objectives

Leaders have their eyes fixed on two things: their vision and their people. A leader knows how important the individual team members are in achieving the dream and so make a point to get to know them on a personal level. Through this, they build relationships which help drive the vision to completion.

A manager knows that the tasks given to the team are important and so keep their focus on the goals and systems in place to achieve them.

What are the characteristics of a leader?

  • Visionary
  • Inspiration
  • Innovative
  • Risk-taking
  • Relational

It is clear that a leader has the ability to dream and the willpower to see that dream come to life. They know that this happens through people, risks, and failure, which ultimately results in success through grit and hard work.

What are the characteristics of a manager?

  • Expert at executing tasks
  • Operational
  • Risk-mitigating
  • Project-focused

A manager knows how important the tasks at hand are, and strive to see them to completion using method and systems of success.

Although they have differences, both leaders and managers both set out to achieve. The processes might not look the same, but the end goal and result is identical. If a person is able to be both a strong leader and a good manager, then half of their wars are won before they are even on the battleground.

One of the best ways to excel at becoming a leading manager is to focus on developing the skills necessary to tackle tasks with people on your team.

Taking a short course in Business Leadership is a surefire way of gaining the technical and practical competencies to be the best leader-manager combination a business needs.

MasterStart is the collaborative partner in business education of USB-ED (University of Stellenbobosch Business School Executive Development)