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. 

The Difference Between Managing and Leading

My last post focused on the scourge of micromanaging. In it I noted that there was significant differences between managing and leading. I received a comment from a reader, Michaël Ben-Yosseph that was very kind and had nice things to say about the post. He also suggested that in my next post I discuss not just that there is a difference between managing and leading but exactly what those differences are. 

 

Well, this is my next post. So here we go! 

 

First I would say that the difference is as large as the difference between night and day. We manage stuff and we lead people. Perhaps the biggest single difference is that stuff, budgets, inventories, buildings, etc. don’t have feelings. That alone makes managing a whole lot easier than leading, at least to me.

 

People, at least the ones I know, most definitely have feelings. For many of those people those feelings are easily hurt. 

 

That’s why it’s vital for a leader to care about their people. You can care about people without leading them but you simply cannot lead them without caring for them. An attitude of genuine caring will shape every other interaction and communication you have with your people. So will a care less attitude. If you do not possess a genuine caring nature you will struggle as a leader. 

 

Managing is very much about today. It’s a one day at a time kinda thing. Leadership is of course about today but it’s also about tomorrow, the next day, the next week and the next years. That’s why leading requires vision and managing requires tenacity. 

 

Managing is a very specific business, it’s the art of steering the ship on a well-defined course. Managing requires facts, data, and objectives. Leadership is the art of turning the unlikely, and at times the impossible, into tangible, reachable, realistic objectives. Organizations seldom manage their way to success. Organizational success requires leadership. 

 

Managing is an inside job. Managers utilize their internal resources to make things happen and achieve the goals of the organization. Leaders understand the outside as well as the inside. This provides them with the insights required to see their entire business environment and anticipate needed changes as well as understand potential opportunities. 

 

Leaders influence while managers direct. It’s really not always that black and white but it’s almost always that black and white. While leaders focus on what will matter, and on why it will matter, managers tend to focus on how it will matter. 

 

Said another way, leaders decide what to do and managers decide how to do it. Unless of course the leader is also a micromanager and then all bets are off. 

 

Leaders are really the heart of an organization. They inspire, coach, vision cast, create and nurture the organizational culture. They keep the organization moving forward through communication and motivation. No organization succeeds without solid leadership. 

 

No offense to leaders but managers are more like the brains of the organization. They make the rules, set up policies, programs, etc. Managers are about business, not people. No offense to managers but they usually see people as just another tool or asset they can use to get the task completed. No organization succeeds without diligent management. 

 

Frequently the skill sets and the more important mindset of managers and leaders are so different that it’s challenging for one person to possess both. But “things” tend to work better when managers have a heart and a whole lot better when leaders have a brain.


It’s not that one person can’t be both a good manager and great leader, it’s just that it requires effort and dedication that sadly, too many managers and leaders appear unwilling to make.