Maura O'Hea Maura O'Hea Maura O'Hea Maura O'Hea
over 4 years ago by Maura O'Hea

Leaders Focus on People, Managers on Things | Next Generation


The idea of a leader carries with it a sense of magnificence, of charisma, of inherent strength. One might say that someone “is a born leader”. We imagine great men like Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Alexander (indeed) the Great. (Even though, it has to be said, some of their actions left a lot to be desired!)

On the contrary, being a ‘born manager’ just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 

We’re going to have a look at the two different skills sets. Not in the context of conquering nations of course (although characteristics do compare), but in the context of the modern workplace. It’s important to understand the differences and direct your growth to one or the other. Or both. 

And also, these skills can be developed. One of the (many) myths around leadership is that people are born with these skills. Not true.

Leaders, essentially, are people that others choose to follow. Managers on the other hand, are people for whom others work. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and the best managers are also leaders

Inspiration vs goals

Leaders inspire people. They share a vision of what is possible through the team’s efforts and they uplift and drive people to be the best version of themselves. Leadership is about giving each person the space to grow and to participate in something great, regardless of how tiny that role might be. They’re about raising the bar through a collaborative effort. 

Managers, by contrast, focus on goals. And how to achieve those through whatever means possible available to them (e.g. hiring additional team members, upskilling existing staff thanks to a training budget, streamlining operations through a technology solution).

 This is not to say that this may not be achieved through leadership qualities, but it may not necessarily be so. Managers are planners and their role is to see their goals through from the planning stage to task completion (when they have to report to the next line of command). They should focus on creating manageable objectives, controlling and measuring success. 

Big picture strategy vs task orientation

It takes foresight and courage to make big changes. To disrupt what is. It’s risky, but the reward may be great. This is a leadership trait. It’s about having a vision, creating a strategy and moving it forward. This might be in the form of specific tasks and projects, which are recognisably the domain of a manager. 

The big picture vision tends to be a long-term ideal. Leaders with a vision to make massive changes want to see it through to fruition and are in it for the long haul. 

They grasp that there may be ups and downs – as with a good, but risky investment. Managers can be focused on the medium to long term too, but their responsibilities prioritise the short-term. They have to keep delivering KPIs and ensure the business is running smoothly. Their goals are broken down into bite-sized tasks, even though, overall, they may be contributing to large, transformative projects.

Personal growth and self-actualisation

Among the many critical leadership competencies, leaders are those people who are constantly busy. 

Not in the checking-their-phone-for-emails, distracted kind of busy. But they are constantly self-evaluating and seeking ways to develop their personal growth. 

By the same token, they are finding ways to grow their people. They understand the importance of personal and professional development for their teams, and how this leads to satisfaction in the workplace. 

People who feel they are contributing positively to the greater good and are empowered to do so, are happier in other aspects of their lives too. Leaders want happy people and they’re not threatened by their people getting too good at their jobs. They’re confident enough in themselves to see this as a tremendously positive opportunity for the wider team (and business).

This builds a trust relationship between leaders and the people around them. As Jack Welch, Chairman and CEO of General Electric from 1991-2001, and one of America’s most famous business executives,  aptly said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” 

Good managers develop processes and structures to deliver goals and the associated objectives. They work with their employees as individuals and their specific skills. While project success is awarded to a manager, a leader will give credit to the team and raise them up, providing motivation and loyalty. 

Leadership is about people, management is about things. Good leaders tend to be the people that others come to for advice – often personal advice. This is not to say that a manager is not a leader. They may well be, but often then, they will outgrow the position of ‘manager’. 

Developing leadership traits

Training and coaching provide a platform for managers to develop into leaders if they want to. Of course both are crucial to an organisation. The focus on goals and the processes, systems and tasks necessary to realise goals is a vital skill. But, to excel in management, and develop from there, requires leadership skills too. Managers are in a good position to develop their leadership skills because they have their ears and eyes on the ground. They’re aware of the nuts and bolts that make the machine of an organisation run smoothly.  

Management consultant and author, Peter Drucker said that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” 

And therein lies the difference!