Is Your Eye on the Horizon or on the Map? The difference between managers and leaders

By Matt Firestone | Jul 15, 2022
Illustration of workers silhouetted against a sunset. A road map leads past the clouds. Image by Shutterstock / Khvost / JU.STOCKER.
Almost as contentious as the chicken and egg debate, “Are managers and leaders the same?” has been pondered for years.




Almost as contentious as the chicken and egg debate, “Are managers and leaders the same?” has been pondered for years. The terms can be used interchangeably. There are some similarities between “leadership” and “management,” but there are far more differences. Just because you are a manager doesn’t mean you are in leadership, and just because you are a leader doesn’t mean you are in management. Most successful companies have a healthy mix of managers, leaders and a few individuals who work effectively as both. A vital component of this success formula is the right balance between them.

Managers versus leaders

At the root of it, managers and leaders want the company to be successful. They may take a different approach, but both want what’s best for the organization. Leaders look toward setting goals for the future, while managers act in the present, formulating and executing a plan to achieve the goal. Neither one is better than the other, and your business needs both to succeed.

What does it mean to say that managers focus on the now? Managers focus on the day-to-day execution of the team’s workload and tasks. Typically, a person is promoted or appointed to a management position based on technical skills, knowledge or experience in the industry. They use these skills to manage the people and resources and achieve the organization’s goals. Management is usually tied to a title and position within the company hierarchy and has set responsibilities.

Effective managers can provide clarity and direction for their team and focus on how to achieve goals. They plot the course and show others how to achieve results.

Managers enable workers’ success by supplying them with the right information, tools and resources to do the job. More important, they provide employees with the right processes and workflows to stay on track. When thinking of the best managers, identify those who effectively execute the strategy by implementing the right tactics to keep the team working toward a common mission.

How is a manager focusing on achieving the company’s goal different from the leader who is out in front showing the team the way?

Simply answered, managers focus on how things get done, and leaders focus on the vision—what gets done. While the leader may have their eye fixed on the horizon, the manager is looking at the map, ensuring the team reaches its destination.

Unlike managers, leaders can be anywhere within a company’s organizational hierarchy. Leadership is linked to actions that move the company forward, not tied to a title or position. Like skilled chess players, leaders formulate steps that set up future moves to capture the king.

When contemplating leadership, it is common to think of those leading the entire organization. These are the people who set the firm’s objectives. They are responsible for communicating these aims to the entire company. Influential leaders are the ones who can paint a vivid picture of what is possible and use their influence to achieve buy-in from the whole team.

While influence may sometimes have a negative connotation, in this, it is a way to inspire, encourage and engage others to work together rather than a manipulation tactic. Genuine leaders don’t have hidden agendas or seek self-promotion. They strive for the successes of the whole over the achievements of individuals.

Leaders are more focused on inspiring others than directing them. They set the tone for how the company operates. Leaders set the goals for the organization or individual team and play a significant role in establishing the culture of how the company works and operates. The leaders’ actions encourage others to be the best they can be, challenge themselves to achieve more and push outside their comfort zone.

Investing in your employees

The most successful organizations have a healthy balance of effective managers and leaders, which ensures both forward-thinking and day-to-day operations. For an organization’s longevity, it is essential to develop individuals to be future leaders.

The good news is that the skills needed to be a good manager or effective leader can be learned and improved through training and experience. An extremely effective way to build an engaged workforce is to invest in your employees. You don’t have to spend a ton of money. Internal mentoring and coaching programs by current leaders and managers helps instill your company culture in the next generation. One positive result of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased availability of employee development opportunities, including formal training programs and webinars. It is always a good idea to develop your employees.

Five icons with chat bubbles, a maze, divergent arrows, a person holding a flag, and hands holding a puzzle piece. Image by Shutterstock / JOJOSTUDIO / Micromaniac / Icon Stocker / Happy Icons / CharacterFamily70.

Shutterstock / JOJOSTUDIO / Micromaniac / Icon Stocker / Happy Icons / CharacterFamily70

When evaluating outside training programs or developing something internal, focus on the base set of leadership and managerial skills that can be adapted to the individuals’ roles. The top five skills that managers and leaders need to be effective are:

  • Communication: Two-way communication is a necessity. Don’t simply focus on getting your message across. Listen to your employees and ensure they feel heard. To be an effective communicator, adapt your message to your audience to ensure everyone interprets it the same way and is aligned with the goal.
  • Problem-Solving: Being an effective problem-solver requires looking at all the options and selecting the best one based on the available information.
  • Decision-Making: Like problem-solving, the best decision takes into account what is favorable for the organization, not just the individual. It is better to make the right decision than the popular one. Be confident but not arrogant.
  • Motivation: How can you get the most out of the people on your team? Employees want to feel like they matter.
  • Delegation: Neither managers nor leaders can do it alone. Effectively delegate by finding the best person for the job and supporting them to get it done.
The most successful organizations have a healthy balance of effective managers and leaders, which ensures both forward-thinking and day-to-day operations. For the organization’s longevity, it is essential to develop individuals to be future leaders.

It doesn’t always go both ways

The most effective managers are also talented leaders, but not vice versa. If you are unsure whether you are managing or leading, ask yourself who comes to you for advice and input. If the answer is only those who report to you or are below you in the company hierarchy, you are likely a manager. If those up, down and across from you seek you out, you are a leader. Managers tend to count the value they provide to the company, such as how much they bring to the bottom line. In contrast, leaders count the value they create for the organization and develop exponential returns on their actions.

You bring value regardless of your position, experience or tenure. While you may have to be patient to get a management position, you can start being a leader today. Better yourself for your own success and your organization’s gain. The seeds you plant today will be the successes you and your organization reap tomorrow.

In the end, former broadcasting executive Donald McGannon said it well: “Leadership is action, not position.” You don’t have to wait for the promotion to make a difference. You may not be setting goals for the whole company, but you can make a difference for your team, department or crew. Think about how the move you make today will set you up to capture your opponent’s king tomorrow. Also read Firestone’s Your Business column for more on this topic.

Header image by Shutterstock / Khvost / JU.STOCKER.

About The Author

FIRESTONE, a former contractor, is the owner of Firestone Consulting Group. He can be reached at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles