‘Managers do things right – Leaders do the right thing’

I often pose this statement in the beginning of my seminars. It helps me assess people’s understanding or perspectives on the relationship between the two titles. Are they one and the same to be used interchangeably? Is there a thin line, a bridge or more of a chasm between them? Crude definitions exists:


  1. A person who has control or direction of an institution, business etc, or a part or division, or phase of it.
  2. A person who controls and manipulates resources and expenditure, as of a household


  1. A guiding and directing head, as of any army movement or political group
  2. A conductor or director , as of an orchestra, band or chorus


Are there similarities? Arguably a manager also guides and directs, so why are managers seldom called leaders? Possibly this is about context. A person called a manager is often in a situation where they are accountable to a higher rank and compliance is something that is expected of them in terms of their responsibilities as an employee and an ‘overseer’ of subordinates. They have power over a subordinate team of  people and some room for creatively carrying out their obligations day to day, however they often do not have a great deal of authority to change fundamentals.  They may have vision but ultimately they are expected to carry out someone else’s vision.

Vision, I feel is one thing that separates managers from leaders.  Leaders are not so bound by issues of compliance and subordination to others. Leaders normally are at the top of a hierarchy although there are cases when Leader is also in the title of someone who has a responsibility within a scenario where there is an overall leader. In this case it could be that a subordinate is leading on something but is not THE leader. Leadership, in my view conveys something that is more powerful, visionary, revolutionary. Leadership is a mission orientated word. Manager, in my view is more task orientated. Leaders therefore are required to have vision and a range of skills to execute a mission and build a team capable of fulfilling it. It’s not a workplace term but as the definition above alludes, is more about guiding and directing around an idea, vision or strategy and the leader has the capability to curve and twist  along the journey. A leader is usually someone who is cultivating a followership of their own vision and values, not someone else’s. Leaders may well engage managers in their mission but rarely the other way round.

So in some contexts the terms are used interchangeably but ultimately managers are not always leaders and leaders would normally delegate management functions and focus on the big picture, strategic advancement and building the key relationships that they see are key to success. So which one are you?