In theory, leadership is any role where you’re in charge of others. But technically, management and leadership aren’t the same thing. And if that’s confusing, don’t worry. It’ll all become clear in a moment. So, what’s the difference between managers and leaders?

We’ll be diving into the distinctions further in. But, for now, let’s keep it simple. When we say leaders, we mean the most senior leadership in the business. The CEOs, Chairpersons, or Company Directors.

By comparison, managers are people in charge of keeping a team or department running smoothly. While they are a decision-making authority figure, they’re as subject to the whims of leadership as anyone else. Just like any other employee, a manager’s success depends on them having the right tools for the job.

Are leaders more important than managers?

One example of the difference between managers and leaders is that leaders are often viewed as MVPs. We recently posted a poll on LinkedIn, asking who people believe to be more important. Leaders or managers. And, as it happens, leaders won with a landslide of 82%. But why do people think this?

A leader sets the vision of the organisation. When a big decision shakes things up, they’re usually responsible. A business without effective leadership is a lot like a ship without a rudder. But that’s not all there is to it.

Founders, CEOs and the like tend to be some of (if not the most) public-facing members of their organisation. For better or worse, some are practically A-list celebrities. Prominent business leaders are no strangers to controversy or being in the public eye. A good leader grows their brand, while bad leaders can have disastrous results. But does that make them more vital than managers?

We’re not so sure.

In terms of your engagement strategy, your managers are its implementors. They’re an employee’s main point of contact with your company’s broader culture. As such, they account for 70% of variation in employee engagement stats. If an employee is on the fence about leaving their position, it’s not uncommon for management to be the deciding factor.

Leaders vs managers: Why managers are often overlooked

The difference between managers and leaders is that a leader dwells in the public (or at least company-wide) eye. On the other hand, a manager’s sphere of influence is firmly centered on their immediate team. And the problem with being a manager is that, when things go wrong, the trail of blame leads back to you. But, when you do things right, you’re almost unnoticeable.

Of course, that’s not all. There’s also the fact that managerial skill is often taken for granted by employers. Promotion to management is the most typical of career track imaginable. And yet, too many organisations don’t offer enough or even any formal management training. This sends a clear message that the skillset it under-valued.

People who excel in a job can often expect to end up in a management role under the assumption their role knowledge will make them an effective boss. This explains why, according to Gallup, companies promote the wrong employee 82% of the time.

Understanding the difference between managers and leaders

It’s the overlap between management and leadership that makes understanding the differences that much more essential. Take employee recognition, for example. It’s a key management responsibility that generates long-term engagement and self-motivation. Getting heartfelt thanks and praise from your boss can make a real difference.

But getting praise from the founder of the organisation is something you’ll remember. Imagine working on a film set and getting a direct compliment from Steven Spielberg.

But, to understand the difference between managers and leaders, let’s use the metaphor of a ship at sea. The captain is the leader. They decide where the ship goes and how it gets there. And, obviously, the crew are the employees.

But the person who manages the day-to-day minutiae is the first mate or quartermaster. They carry out the captain’s orders, coordinate the crew (employees), and keep an eye on morale.

Leaders vs managers: Eyes at the top versus boots on the ground

Of course, real businesses are much more expansive than simply a boat full of people. The CEO is only one form of executive leader. And teams can even be spread out across different locations. In large businesses, it would be a rarity to get facetime with the founder of the company.

It’s ultimately your managers who clock the most facetime with employees. That’s why you should consider them to be the implementors of your workplace culture. They lead their team by immediate example. They support their employees, both in wellbeing and career development. But they also practice conflict resolution and encourage collaboration.

Leaders show the world your work culture

By comparison, leaders are your work culture’s visionaries. The only ones really allowed to shake things up. But they’re also its ambassadors. They represent the brand beyond the confines of your offices.

We’ve talked before about the importance of employee brand advocacy. But brand representation by leadership is something else altogether. It’s their networking and business acumen that opens new contracts or deals with other companies.

Do we need to focus more on managers?

Now that we’ve illustrated the difference between managers and employees, you can decide for yourself who has the bigger impact. But all the same, it’s clear that management needs more focus and support. So, why are managers due for some attention, and what support can we provide?

The lack of management training and soft skills

Trying to self-teach good management practice is like trying to learn martial arts without an instructor. All you’ll end up with is a bunch of bad habits and an over-inflated sense of confidence. So, when employees suddenly find themselves in a management role, many simply imitate the bosses they’ve worked under.

Sometimes, it works out okay. Broken clocks being right, and all that. But, more often, those bad habits get passed down and compounded through successive generations of managers. And when bad managerial habits get baked into your work culture, they can be hard to get rid of. So, when you’re investing in employee education, don’t give your managers the short end of the stick.

On top of that, don’t underestimate the impact of soft skills. Things like active listening, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence can really help bosses up their game.

Managers lack the tools to succeed

They say it’s a poor craftsman who blames their tools. But we say that’s rubbish!

When managers get stuck with outdated tools and frameworks, it’s no wonder they can’t produce results. Without a system in place for regular, two-way feedback, they can’t actively coach employee development. This is especially true if they’re managing a hybrid team. Remote staff don’t have the same opportunities for informal discussion, which makes it hard to offer timely feedback.

The same goes for the feedback a manager gets from their team. If they only poll engagement once a year, their notion of how people feel is going to be outdated. Any action they take is going to feel sluggish from an employee’s perspective.

Consider overhauling your performance review model to incorporate an employee check-in. That way, managers can strike while the iron is hot by giving feedback in immediate response to an event.

Employees will appreciate their managers checking in more regularly. But it will also stoke ongoing performance conversations and generate a rich variety of employee sentiment data. We can’t overstate the importance of real-time employee insight.

We’re in a transitional period for employee management

This is perhaps the most important reason why managers need more support. The way we work and the way we manage employees are changing rapidly. In the last several years, we’ve seen the remote work boom blossom into a push for greater job flexibility on all fronts.

There are more ways for employees to approach potential careers than ever. We’ve seen the push for greater employee wellbeing, and we’ve seen global engagement struggle.

Strides in tech are transforming the workplace. And we don’t just mean video chat filters letting you pretend to be on a roller coaster. Machine learning algorithms are analysing data, speeding up tasks and freeing up focus. And virtual tools allow people on opposite sides of the planet to work with each other like they’re in the same room.

All this to say that managers are being forced to adapt. Even those who’ve had proper training must figure things out. With hybrid workplaces becoming more common, it’s time for a remote-first communications policy to become the new standard.