The Vast Difference Between Managing and Leading

Leading and managing are seen as nearly identical, interchangeable words by most people. Even people who should and must know the huge difference often don’t. That’s why I write about the difference several times each year.


The difference between managing and leading is more, way, way, way, way more, than mere semantics. The difference in mindset between someone who attempts to manage people and someone who actually leads people is gigantic. 


The people who are managed feel that difference everyday. It feels as if they are a cog in the wheel, a bit player with little or no opportunity to grow into something more. You may be able to force the compliance of a managed human being but you will never earn their commitment. Only a leader can earn the commitment of an emotional being. 


Managing is mostly about stuff. We manage budgets, plans, inventories, buildings, etc. All the “stuff” has one thing in common, they are not emotional. 


Leadership is about people. It’s about people and only people. All people have something in common too; they are most certainly emotional. 


That’s what makes leading much more challenging than managing. 


Unless of course you’re trying to manage people. Now that’s a challenge! It’s a challenge because people basically refuse to be managed. They fight being managed every step of the way. Even if they don’t know why “it” doesn’t feel right they instinctively know being managed causes them some level of emotional distress. 


To the people who still believe that the difference between managing and leading is mostly semantics I would tell you that the vast majority of “people problems” or “personnel issues” that you experience on an ongoing basis are attributable to that belief.


If you think of the people you’re supposed to be leading as nothing more than human capital or an asset much like your printers or computers then you should expect them to fail you when you most need them….just like your printer or computer. 


Authentic Leaders understand the difference between what gets managed and who gets led. Authentic Servant Leaders understand better than anyone that people who are led commit to the leader and their vision. They understand that people who are led will outperform people who are managed every single day. 


People who are managed may, just may, help you maintain a stable organization. People who are led will commit to helping you grow your organization beyond your wildest dreams. People who are managed cause problems, people who are led solve them. 


People who are managed are cared about, people who are led are cared for and if you don’t understand the difference then you are likely having a hard time actually leading your people. 


Your computer, or anything else you might manage, will never know what you think of it and that’s okay because it doesn’t need to. The people you lead absolutely must know what you think of them and if you don’t tell them and back it up by showing them they will almost certainly believe you don’t think much of them at all. It’s an emotional response that Authentic Servant Leaders understand very well. 

If you have the audacity to call yourself a leader then you must, absolutely must must must, understand the clear difference between what you manage and who you lead. Without that basic understanding you will be very likely attempt the impossible task of managing people. 

26 thoughts on “The Vast Difference Between Managing and Leading

  1. Fantastic write-up Steve. You inspire me a lot with ALL your posts; the aforementioned in leading and managing is not left out. It is very educative. I will use this shape the future of my leadership skills and my colleagues (workers). You are my “Leadership Hero” and “Leadership Mentor”! Remain Blessed.
    Thank You.

  2. Great article, enlightening and providing insight.
    I agree, when the psyche is focused on people management it implies the manager is self centered aiming at boosting personal ego and goals in getting a job done. Subordinates subconsciously pick up the vibe and feel they are being used. Commitment level under such circumstances is zero.

  3. Your post made a
    remarkable impact on, I’m requesting your permission to share on my twitter timeline to bless others also

  4. I hope to be a great leader in the future an I have been working on leadership an understanding people a lot, for the past 10 years or more, so in the big picture this article was very useful, thanks for your time and your thoughts it’s very good your trying to get in the hearts of the people you help,, have a spectacular day an life. X,

  5. Great post with lots of truth. “People who are managed cause problems.” I’d just like to stress a point probably obvious to most readers: this does not mean they ARE the problem. It is always interesting to look for what makes the managed cause problems and what their ideas of positive change are.

    1. Excellent comment! I don’t think your point is obvious at all, most people, even people in leadership positions believe that people who cause problems ARE the root cause of the problem when in reality the root cause is the person in the leadership position who refuses to actually lead.

  6. Steve, I am just coming to this post – and I love it! As an executive coach I see this all the time. It is an issue that clients will push back on… insisting they are leaders who ‘manage’. Usually it is because “managing” is a comfort zone, and ‘leading’ feels so BIG!

    1. That’s a great point Rachel. In a way they are right that leading is BIG…. managing tends to be absent the challenge of emotions while leading is full of emotions because it involves people. Emotions make everything messy, they also make leading far more rewarding than mere managing.

  7. Leading starts from the heart, it starts when the way one “beats” is with a passion to see other’s do well. I appreciate the premise of your article. Thanks, Steve Keating.

  8. Outstanding article!
    This article helped me to clarify the difference between leadership and management, so I can explain to others.
    I plan to share this information to help others.

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