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. 


The Problem With Micromanaging

Have you ever heard the term microleading? I doubt it but if you have you should recognize it as an oxymoron. Like “I worked all-day one night.” 

 

Micromanaging is exactly what it says it is, microMANAGING. It’s when someone in a leadership position not only tries to manage a person but they manage even the smallest details of that person’s job. 

 

But micromanaging isn’t really the problem, it’s merely a symptom of a much bigger issue. The bigger issue is that there is someone in a leadership position trying to manage another human being. 

 

You see, managing is about stuff. You can manage budgets, you can manage inventory, you can manage buildings and plans but you cannot manage people. Basic human instinct drives us to resist being managed and and also makes us virtually crave being led.

 

Leadership is about people, people and only people. 

 

If you’ve found your way into a leadership position, no matter how you got there, your number one responsibility is to and for the people you lead. 

 

The real problem with micromanaging is not the “micro” part, it’s the managing part. In a weird twist, the “micro” part actually magnifies the fact that the person is being managed and not led. 

 

Managing a person is like asking them to swim laps while wearing handcuffs. They may some how pull it off but you’ll be greatly limiting their effectiveness. Notice I said “you’ll” as in you, the leader, will be limiting their effectiveness. 

 

Most every issue a person in a leadership position has with their people likely stems from the fact that they are trying to manage them. A managed person’s morale, creativeness, willingness to take risks, and motivation to push themselves are all pressured by being managed; when they are micromanaged those same things are crushed. 

 

I might be naive but I don’t think most micromanagers mean to do that type of harm. But there isn’t much difference between intentional harm and unintentional harm. If you’re micromanaging your people your harming them by limiting their growth. 

 

Authentic Servant Leaders know that they don’t really grow their business, they grow their people and their people then grow the business. When you limit the growth of your people you’re also limiting the growth of your entire organization. 

 

Trust your people! Unleash their potential by leading them, not managing them. Motivate them, coach them, teach them, and care for them. 


Authentic Servant Leaders understand that their people aren’t assets, they are not capital, and that they are not machines. They know that their people are human beings, real live human beings who have goals and dreams, they know that they are people who need to be led, not managed. 

Where Management and Leadership Skills Meet

I have written several times on the vast difference between managing and leading. Managing is about “stuff’, budgets, inventory, buildings, executing plans, etc. Leading is about people and only about people. 

 

Simply put, if you’re doing it for your business it’s managing. If you’re doing it for your people then it’s leadership. 

 

When what you’re doing is good for the organization AND a person or persons it’s what I call Manleaship.

 

The skill sets and more importantly the mindset of managers and leaders are almost completely different. It is very common in business that a person is either a manager or leader but not both. 

 

A business or organization that has people with good management skills and other people with good leadership skills can do okay, but only okay. A business or organization that has a person, or hopefully people, who have good management skills combined with good leadership skills can do better than okay…much much better. 

 

Managers likely know and understand the skills and abilities of their people. Managers, and I DO NOT mean this in a negative sense, tend to look at their people as assets or resources which in some sense they are. But leaders, especially Authentic Leaders and especially, especially, Authentic Servant Leaders look at their people as people, living breathing people with wants and needs, and challenges with a life outside of the workplace.

 

Managers and leaders have a different, sometimes very different, view of the same picture.

 

If a business or organization is going to do more than just okay then they need to make sure each person within their organization is in a position or performing a role that allows them the greatest chance for success. Some leaders and managers seem to forget that they and their organization cannot be successful if the people who make up the organization are unsuccessful. 

 

Never forget, as a leader or a manager you will never be more successful than your people.

 

So imagine how hard it is to help people succeed, to place them in roles with the greatest chance for success, when you only see one view of their picture. Throughout my career I’ve seen friends, family, and colleagues promoted or placed into positions where they had no chance to be successful. 

 

They may have had all the skills needed to excel but they did not have the temperament. Their physical and mental skills may have been excellent but their people skills simply didn’t measure up. Perhaps they had outstanding human relation skills but lacked some vital skill in another area. 

 

A pure manager or a pure leader could easily miss those critical facts. 

 

A person with both skill sets, or Manleaship skills likely would not. 

 

The combination of management and leadership skills may not be needed all that often but when it’s needed it’s really needed. So if you’re at or near the top of an organization that hasn’t been blessed with people who possess Manleaship skills then you need your managers and leaders to be talking with each other everyday. 


Who knows, that endless conversation may just result in them sharing their skill sets and you could end up with lots of people with Manleaship skills. Then you’ll be doing way better than just okay!

What Great Leaders Know

There are so many differences between a person who manages and a person who leads that I could write on that single topic almost exclusively. Great leaders know those differences well.

To be clear, the skill set of a manager is very different than the skill set of a leader. The mindset of a manager is vastly different than the mindset of a leader. To be clear as well, both managers and leaders are critically important for the success of any organization. It is hard to say one is more valuable than the other because without both an organizational will eventually fail. To be crystal clear, there are many people who possess both skill sets, there are far far fewer people who possess both mindsets. 

Managing is about “stuff” and leading is about people. Budgets are managed, inventories are managed, systems are managed, “things” are managed. Leading is solely about people and the singular focus of truly great leaders, at least during those times when they are actually leading, is their people. 

Managers can help people accomplish more for the good of the organization, managers can even motivate people. Many managers in fact look like decent leaders. The only thing missing is the motive of true leadership. The motive of true leadership is to do the right thing for the people simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s where the mindset comes in.

Managers who look like leaders have the ability to get the compliance of their people. They set up a sort of transactional leadership model that says to their people “you’ll be fine here as long as you do what you’re asked.” Implied of course is the fact that when you stop doing what you’re asked then you won’t be fine anymore. That’s where compliance comes from.

Most people in an organization will in fact do what they are asked. The problem is that most “managed” people will do little more than what they are asked. They can appear to be engaged in the organization and engaged in their work when in fact they are more likely just putting in their hours.

True leaders, great leaders, have no need for the compliance of their people. They earn the commitment of their people and commitment far outweighs compliance. They earn it by putting a relational leadership model on full display. They build real relationships with the very real people they lead. They build them by showing that they care about people.

This doesn’t mean they have to become best buds and hang out together every weekend. A relational leadership model simply demands that the leader truly cares about the people they lead. They understand, they fully and completely understand that “stuff” is managed and people are led. 

The mindset of a manager is “we need to get this done,” the mindset of a leader is “we need to get this done in a people valuing way that builds people up and helps them reach their full potential while getting it done.” 

When we manage people every task is a “one off” exercise and managers find themselves telling their people the same things over and over. Every time a manager asks their people to do something it’s as if they never asked them before.

When we lead people every task is a learning exercise and because the people are committed to their leader they willingly repeat the task again and again without being asked over and over. 

Managing people helps them understand that the work is important. Leading people helps them understand that while the work is important they are more important. 

This sounds worse than I mean it to sound but managers use people to get the job done. Leaders develop people to get the job done. The different motives come directly from the different mindsets. One has immediate short-term impact and one has more patient potentially endless impact.

Make no mistake, people can build semi-successful careers by trying to manage people but people who lead people build more than careers, they build legacies. They build those legacies by building people who become great leaders in their own right. 

You can either be a manager or a leader, if you’re truly blessed you can even be both but your success and the success of your organization will ultimately depend on you understanding the vast difference between the two.

Managing Stuff, Leading People

Generally speaking, people get promoted because they did something good. Salespeople get promoted to Sales Manager because they were good at selling. A marketing associate gets promoted to Marketing Manager because they had proven themselves to be good marketers. An engineer might get promoted to manager because they designed stuff that worked well and was marketable.

All three of those individuals were promoted to leadership positions and none of them were promoted because they were skilled leaders. Now, they may be good leaders…or they may not, only time will tell.

Here’s a reality of leadership: the vast majority of people are promoted into leadership positions without having demonstrated even a slight ability to actually lead. Many are promoted into leadership positions because they have demonstrated some ability to manage but leading and managing are two entirely different things.

You manage stuff like budgets, inventories and buildings but you lead people. The skill sets are different and more importantly the mindsets are different, in fact, they are completely different. Some people can master both skill sets but that’s less common than many people think.

The biggest mistake a person newly promoted to a leadership position can make is to believe that just because they were good at selling, or marketing or even because they were good at managing, is that they are automatically good at leading.

The saddest thing is that even people who have occupied leadership positions for years still sometimes believe that.

Your position or title doesn’t make you a leader. Even being a good manager doesn’t make you a leader. Running a business, effectively managing every detail, and making money at it, doesn’t make you a leader.

Only leading makes you a leader.

Leading requires that you fully understand the value of people. Leading requires that you understand the unique ability of every individual you would lead. Leading requires that you actually care for those individuals.

This is kind of an aside but here’s one way to determine if you’re talking to a manager or a leader: When you’re talking to a manager you get the feeling that they are important; when you’re talking to a leader you get the feeling that you are important. That “feeling” makes all the difference in the world.

Leading requires that you have the vision required to see the consequences of the consequences of the consequences of every decision you make. It can sometimes seem as if a good leader can see into the future but the truth is, they don’t see the future, they create it.

Let’s be clear, I am not minimizing the importance of good management in any organization. Good management is essential to the stability of every kind of business but management does just that, it keeps things as they are, stable. 

Leadership is not about stability, it is about growth. Leadership is about change for the better. While managers can fall into the trap of believing that strong management can improve a business, leaders know that nothing improves without something changing and they drive that change.

Many more businesses fail due to lack of leadership than fail due to poor management. Think about it, do you really think that businesses like Montgomery Wards, Blockbuster Video, Circuit City, Howard Johnson’s and Borders Books, (to name just a few) suddenly lost the ability to manage their business? 

They didn’t lack sound management, they lacked the vision that a true leader brings to an organization. They lacked the ability to rally their people to a cause. Their people couldn’t commit to the leadership because they couldn’t find any leadership.

I could write forever on the differences between managing and leading but for now I’ll just say this: the first step to understanding the difference between managing and leading is to understand that THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. The difference is not just semantics, the differences are real, concrete and definable. 

Once you understand that basic fact then and only then to you have a chance to truly lead.

Managing People

The first thing to keep in mind when managing people is that if you’re doing it then you’re doing it wrong. You’re doing it wrong because you shouldn’t be doing it at all. People will not and can not be managed. 

You manage stuff, stuff without feelings, stuff without opinions, stuff that does not have the ability to think for itself, stuff that doesn’t have emotions. People ain’t stuff! 

With all due respect to some very smart people who say the difference between managing and leading is just semantics I’m sorry to tell them that they are seriously seriously wrong. It’s not a difference of opinion, it’s not just “how you look at it,” and it’s most certainly not merely semantics. The difference between managing and leading is as great as the difference between night and day.

Some people, very very few but some, have the aptitude to both manage and lead. Many people are placed in positions where both skill sets are required and those people struggle mightily. They struggle because the mindset of a manager is so vastly different than the mindset of a leader. 

Managers have subordinates while leaders have followers. Managers seek to control while leaders seek to influence. Managers work with solid data while leaders revel in the abstract. 

Managers use their tenacity to get the job done while leaders are using their imaginations to determine what the job should be. Managers are required to focus on today while leaders are looking ahead to tomorrow and beyond. 

A manager’s thinking typically focuses on how to get the most out of the workers they have. A leader’s thinking is typically focused on how to help their people grow, both professionally and personally. 

A manager “spends time on employees” to ensure requirements are met. A leader “invests time with people” to ensure that their people have the opportunity to excel. 

I throughly dislike the term “human capital” that is so often used by Human Resource professionals. There is nothing actually wrong with the words, it is the mindset that goes with them. The mindset is one of managing people and managing people is truly impossible. The mindset of managing people is actually the cause of most of an organization’s “people problems.”

Those two words should never be next to one another. We manage capital and we lead people. When they two words are used together the capital word “wins” and the people word is either minimized or forgotten altogether. That’s the genesis of many many personnel issues.

For those of you who still think managing and leading are one and the same I’d like you give a motivational talk to your inventory or budget right now and see how they respond. 

If that sounds crazy to you then you get my point…it really is crazy to talk to stuff but it’s no more crazy than trying to manage human beings. You can’t lead things and you can’t manage people because leading and managing are not interchangeable.

Authentic Leaders understand the difference between managing and leading and never try to substitute one for the other. Do you?

When Managers Don’t Lead

Few things in business are more costly than a manager in a leadership position. – Steve Keating

Just so we’re clear about this, I have nothing but respect for great managers. They are the essential clue that hold organizations together. They keep things running smoothly, they execute strategies and tactics. Without sound management no organization can survive. 

But… yes you knew there had to be a but… but, simply putting a great manager into a leadership position does not make them a leader. A manager can be a leader and a leader can be a manager but very often a manager is not a leader and sometimes a great leader is not a good manager. 

Managing and leading are two entirely different things. We’re not talking semantics here, we are talking about a difference as large as night and day.

Managers use a microscope and leaders use a telescope. Managers examine the details, vital details yes, but details all the same. A leader not only sees the details they also see the much bigger picture, they see the wide angle view. While a manager sees what is, a leader sees what could be…and what should be.

Managing is about stuff, budgets, inventories, processes, etc. Leadership is about people and it’s only about people. Better management helps a organization survive, better leadership helps an organization grow. 

Successful organizations need both leaders and managers. Which one, managers or leaders, are more important is like arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Just an aside, if you really want to know which one came first read Genesis in The Bible, it’s abundantly clear that the chicken came first.)

When managers occupy a leadership position without actually leading progress slows down. It can slow down so much that it actually stops. Whenever I see a business that is not growing I almost always see a manager in a position of leadership. 

Good managers can learn to lead after moving into a leadership position. The longer they try to manage when they should be leading the less likely they are to ever truly lead. The most successful leaders were leaders before they had a true leadership position. They understood that leadership was more about their disposition than it was about any position they may one day achieve. 

Some leaders have other leadership positions reporting to them. They must be certain that  leaders occupy those positions. 

Putting managers into leadership positions is a common mistake. It a mistake that produces common results rather then the uncommon results that the most successful organizations use to succeed again and again.

That makes it an incredibly costly mistake.