Leader & Manager: What’s the difference?

11. 19. 2018

G. R. Jones in his 1995 work Organizational Theory defines management to be ‘the planning, organizing, leading, and controlling of resources to achieve goals effectively and efficiently”.  The definition seems to place leader as a subset of manager.  Early leadership theory seemed to follow the same paradigm and described leadership in terms of how to get people to do what the organization needed them to accomplish, in other words the planning, organizing and controlling functions of the definition. As leadership theory continued to grow, it first focused on these attributes of management however more recent research suggest there are some aspect of the definition of management, namely leadership, needs to consider two actors, the leader and the manager under this umbrella.  

The evolution of leadership theory appears to have reached the stage where the actions, skills and attributes of a manager can be differentiated from those of a leader.  This need not set up a dichotomy separating the two but does encourage a true understanding of how they function together. 

This difference seems to have best been captured by the idea that leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right. (Warren Bennis 1925-2014).  

Can this idea be demonstrated in a tangible way by identifying and differentiating the skills, knowledge, competencies and attributes of leader vs manager?  

The beginnings of management theory assumed labor to be a resource much the same as raw materials in the manufacturing process.  It was treated as interchangeable parts that could be deployed at will and would then perform on as specified.  Fredrick Taylor’s (1856-1925) Scientific Management approach and Henri Fayol’s (1841-1925) theories of Administrative Management were early adherents to this idea.  

The humanist stream introduced the idea that labor, although a resource, required more understanding of the motivations of the worker to create effective managers/leaders.  Elton Mayo (1880- 1949) , commonly known as the father of the Human Relations Movement, and Chester Barnard 1886-1961 (Inducement and Cooperation Theory) are two of the early advocates for this stream of management/leadership theory.  

These two streams were captured under the banners of transformational leadership (Burns,1978) and transactional leadership, first described by Max Weber and then expanded on by Bernard Bass (1985)

Transactional Leadership

Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) is reported to have observed “Why is it that every time I want to hire a pair of hands I get a brain attached?”.  This seems to be the perfect metaphor for the transactional approach position about the relationship between organizations and labor.  

Transactional leadership is concerned with results, uses existing organizational designs, and measures success by attaining organizational goals.  Employees are motivated and directed towards these goals by appealing to their personal self-interest through reward and incentive.  In simple terms there is a transaction, if the employee performs to the organizational standard there is a reward provided. Research and time have demonstrated this view does not create effective or efficient organizations and this is particularly true as the world economy moves towards the need for a highly educated and trained workforce to compete in a global marketplace.  

This is still the most widely used leadership style in industries however the growth of a knowledge economy and focus on service sector has created a need to shift focus more towards a leadership style that encourages individual growth and achievement: transformational leadership models.

Transformational Leadership

Flipping the words used by Ford around a little a transformational paradigm emerges. “With every pair of hands, you get a free brain” (Bessant, 2015) identifies a model that embraces the opportunity for creativity and innovation that every employee brings to an organization.

The transformational leader inspires rather than orders, she cedes control to those doing the work, she cares for the whole person rather than the ‘pair of hands’ and she embraces input and dialogue as problem solving tools. (Spahr, 2015)

To examine if the ideas of transactional and transformational leadership actual differentiate between a leader and a manager we will examine two elements of each position: definition and actions.   In the first step the paper will consider a number of definitions from the literature on the subject.  Second will be an exploration of the actions the literature attributes to the two positions.  


Leadership and management have many similarities.  They both involve working with and influencing people, where they differ is the means of achieving or exercising that influence.  How they are defined in the literature provides some useful insight into the differences between the concepts.

Joseph Rost (1991) proposed a definition of leadership and management that focused on the relationship function.

"Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes."

"Management is an authority relationship between at least one manager and one subordinate who coordinate their activities to produce and sell particular goods and/or services."

Although not a definition the advertorial describing the leadership degree program at AIU University (Emigh, Sept 28, 2015) is instructive and offers some clarifying ideas. 

“Managers are focused primarily on directing others and distributing resources to accomplish certain tasks. Effective managers must have strong administrative abilities, since much of their jobs involve giving instructions to subordinates and reporting results to their own superiors. Establishing processes and standards for the workplace are standard tasks of a manager.”

“Leadership is more about ideas and influence than management. Leaders tend to have a strong idea of what they would like to accomplish and a willingness to support their vision both vocally and through action. Their strong views and their dedication tend to draw others into their orbit, giving them influence among their peers in the workplace. Leaders also tend to be innovators, and their ability to think unconventionally can be a boon to a business.”

 Kendra Cherry provides two useful definitions of the leader/manager dynamic couching the language so they are connected to Transformational Leadership (leader) and Transactional Leadership (manager)

“Transformational leadership is a style of leadership where the leader is charged with identifying the needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of the group” (Cherry, 2017).


“Transactional Leadership, also known as managerial leadership, focuses on the role of supervision, organization, and group performance; transactional leadership is a style of leadership in which the leader promotes compliance of his/her followers through both rewards and punishments” (Cherry, 2018).


If managers and leaders do different things, then there is some validity to the idea that they are different positions.  A review of the literature combines finds a number of approaches and descriptions of how the leaders and managers act.

Bennis and Nanus (1985) offered a list of key differences:


  • Do the right thing
  • See people as great assets
  • Seek commitment
  • Focus on outcomes
  • See what and why things could be done
  • Share information
  • Promote networks



  • Do things right
  • See people as liabilities
  • Seek control, create and follow rules
  • Focus on how things should be done
  • Seek compliance
  • Value secrecy 
  • Use formal authority

John Paul Kotter’s (1990) approach suggests a significant difference in the two concepts.  Leadership has the objective of creating change and momentum while management is focused on creating order and consistent performance.  


  • Establishes direction
    Creates a vision, clarifies big picture, sets strategies
  • Aligning people to goals
    Communicates goals, seeks commitment, builds teams and coalitions 
  • Motivates and inspires
    Inspires and energizes, empowers subordinates, satisfies needs


  • Plans and budgets
    Establishes agendas, sets timetables, allocates resources
  • Organizes and staffs
    Provides structure, establishes rules and procedures, assigns jobs
  • Controls and problem solves
    Develop incentives, generates solutions, takes corrective action


Writing for Forbes in the leadership blog #LikeABoss, William Aruda (Nov 15, 2016) provided a list of how managers and leaders differ in approach and thought


  • Create vision
  • Act as change agents
  • Are unique
  • Take risks
  • Think long term
  • Grow personally
  • Build relationships
  • Coach people
  • Create fans from their followers


  • Create goals
  • Maintain the status quo
  • Copy ‘best practices’
  • Control risk
  • Concentrate on the short term
  • Rely on existing, proven skills
  • Build systems and processes
  • Direct people
  • Have employees


A commmonly accepted definition of management proposed by George Jones (1985) ‘the planning, organizing, leading, and controlling of resources to achieve goals effectively and efficiently” which helped create the idea that leadership was a single thing rather than a nuanced group of activities which combine to give leadership.   This essay  looked at the leading component of the definition with the proposition that leading was a multifunction item which incorporated many aspects.  Early leadership theory equated leading, the activity proposed in this definition, with leadership.  Subsequent research suggests that the concepts of leader and manager were two disciplines which operate together to provide leadership in an organization.    

A short comparison of the two functions across a number of categories will illustrate the differences between the roles.


Thinking Process


  • Focus on people
  • Looks outward


  • Focus on things
  • Looks inward

Goal setting

  • Articulates a vision
  • Creates the future
  • Sees the forest
  • Executes plans 
  • Improves the present
  • Sees the trees

Employee relations

  • Empowers
  • Colleagues
  • Trusts and develops
  • Controls
  • Subordinates
  • Directs and coordinates


  • Does the right things
  • Creates change
  • Serves subordinates
  • Does things right 
  • Manages change
  • Directs subordinates


  • Uses influence
  • Uses conflict 
  • Acts decisively
  • Uses Authority
  • Avoids conflict
  • Acts responsibly

 Lunenburg (2011) Leadership Versus Management

The two functions are not exclusive to each other.  Many great managers are also powerful leaders but that is not a requirement for solid management skills.  Similarly some strong leaders have week management skills.  The object to leading is to ensure there are sufficient manager and leader skills available in a harmonious mix to ensure the organizations success.  

Good leaders appoint great managers and good managers follow great leaders.


Author: David Johnson, student LIGS University


Arruda, Willaim (Nov 15, 2016), Differences between being a leader and a manager   https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamarruda/2016/11/15/9-differences-between-being-a-leader-and-a-manager/#54ad379b4609

Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. New York: Free Press.

Bennis, W., Nanus, B. (1985) Leaders: Four Strategies for Taking Charge.  New York, Harper and Rowe

Bessant, John (2015), High Involvement Innovation, Retrieved from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/every-pair-hands-you-get-free-brain-john-bessant

Burns, J.M. (1978), Leadership. New York, Harper Rowe

Cherry, Kendra (2017) What is transactional leadership? Verywellmind May 27, 2017 Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-transactional-leadership-2795317?print

Cherry, Kendra (2018) What is transformational leadership? Verywellmind Oct 10, 2018 Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-transformational-leadership-2795313?print

Emigh, Robert (Sept 28, 2015) Leadership Vs. Management: What’s the Difference AIU Blog – Business Degrees Retrieved May 15, 2017 https://www.aiuniv.edu/blog/2015/september/leadership-vs-management 

Jones, G.R, (1995), Organizational Theory, Addison- Wesley, Reading, MA

Kotter, J. P.(1990). Force for change: How leadership differs from management. New York:The Free Press.

Lunenburg, Fred C., (2011) Leasdership Versus Management: A Key Distinction – At Least in Theory, International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration, v14.  https://cs.anu.edu.au/courses/comp3120/local_docs/readings/Lunenburg_LeadershipVersusManagement.pdf  

Rost, J.C. (1991). Leadership for the twenty-first century. New York: Praeger

Spahr, Pamela (2015) What is Transformational Leadership? How New Ideas Produce Impressive Results, Retrieved from St. Thomas University, Online, Jan 31, 2017 http://online.stu.edu/transformational-leadership/

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