Insight |

The difference between a manager and a leader (and how to cultivate both)


The difference between a manager and a leader (and how to cultivate both)

Insight |

The difference between a manager and a leader (and how to cultivate both)

When comparing leaders and managers, most of us sit in one of two camps - you'll either think that leadership is greater or that management is. But neither is necessarily true.

The reality is that we can all probably think of leaders out there who can be very influential but don’t always deliver the best business outcomes, and also managers who are great at their area of expertise.

In this post, we will explain the differences between leadership and management, take a look at the most valuable qualities of both roles, and some tools for organizations to identify and develop both leaders and managers.

By the end you’ll be able to see why an organization really needs a combination of both to achieve productivity and strategic alignment with where they’re heading.

Differences between managers and leaders

A big difference between leadership and management is that:

  • leadership is about influencing and motivating the person who’s doing the job to achieve their goal, whereas
  • management is about planning out resources and executing action plans to achieve efficiency.

An analogy of a push and pull strategy

A useful way to understand the differences between management and leadership is the push and pull strategy, which is widely used in business and marketing contexts.

A business can push for short-term sales using promotions and advertisements that they essentially ‘put’ right in front of the customer. A business can also pull customers towards its products by building brand loyalty and ongoing relationships that attract purchases in the absence of incentives or triggers. This is very similar to the way leadership and management work, which we’ll take a look at in a bit more depth next.

1. Push through planning and managing

In a push strategy, rational planning and the ability to sense pain points are very crucial, which reflects the way management works in three ways:

  1. Management relies on rationality, control and planning;
  2. Managers take a reactive approach towards business goals through solving problems and achieving targets;
  3. Managers facilitate processes and manage the team to achieve measurable results.

Event managers are a good example of managers who use a push strategy. To make sure everything runs smoothly, an event manager oversees the whole planning process, delegates tasks to the right teams, and puts together backup plans for critical functions ahead of time. They are also excellent at communicating with different stakeholders to fully understand and satisfy the customers’ exact expectations.

2. Pull through trust and inspirations

A pull strategy is the opposite of a push strategy. In a pull strategy, ongoing relationships and trust matter a lot more, which reflects how leadership works:

  1. Leaders use trust, vision and inspiration to pull employees to act (rather than through coercion or control);
  2. Leaders take an active role in establishing business goals and identifying problems;
  3. Employees follow leaders because of their personal traits and vision.

A combination of leadership and management

In a marketing context, the best strategies utilize a combination of push and pull. Similarly, leadership and management can also work cohesively within an organization and also within a single person – in fact some of the best leaders are those who use both push and pull techniques. An organization needs managers to facilitate processes and manage team outcomes to achieve productivity, whereas it also needs leaders to inspire creativity, build a sense of belonging, and lead the team towards the right direction, especially during difficult times.

How to find the balance? Performance analytics is the answer

Now you might be wondering, ‘how can we find the balance between push and pull strategy?’ In the marketing world, analytic tools are commonly used to monitor campaign performance and optimize for a good balance between the push and pull strategy.

Likewise, analyzing ongoing feedback from your staff can help you better understand which elements of leadership your team appreciates and resonates with, and which they don’t respond to as well. This can help you make better decisions and evidence-based adjustments when it comes to how you interact with your team.

intelliHR’s people management software provides a keyword analytics feature that generates word clouds according to the frequency of words mentioned in any internal survey responses. As an example, you might notice the keyword ‘micro-management’ mentioned several times. This could indicate that a push strategy isn’t working well for your team, and that you need to use more of a pull strategy.

intelliHR Employee Satisfaction keyword cloud

Different motivations behind leadership and management

From the push and pull analogy we can see a big difference in management and leadership. Managers take a reactive approach to achieve measurable business goals, whereas leaders tend to adopt an active attitude towards goals and take the initiative to shape ideas and set directions.

What leads to the massive difference between the two?

In essence, managers and leaders differ in the motivation behind the way they think and act. For managers, a big part of their responsibilities involve managing the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to achieve objectives, whereas leaders focus more on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ to shape business directions and inspire team members.

1. Managers ask how and when

Managers are typically technical or subject matter experts who are good at solving problems. Their above-average skills in their area of expertise likely resulted in their progression to a management position. A big part of their responsibilities involve managing the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to achieve measurable business outcomes. Because of their expertise and experience, they are good at providing practical feedback and recommendations.

2. Leaders ask what and why

Leaders inspire and encourage employees to contribute to a common goal. They ask questions about ‘what’ and ‘why’ to stimulate creative thinking and help the employees strategically align their efforts with the success of the business.

A balance between leadership and management

In Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos, the Canadian clinical psychologist introduced the dynamic interplay between order and chaos, which is another useful way of understanding leadership and management.

Order is something that an individual understands or when something works in an expected way. When order dominates, things move towards the desired outcome in an orderly manner, but it can also introduce the risk of falling into mundane routines and bureaucracy.

Chaos, on the other hand, are things an individual doesn’t understand and can pull them out of their comfort zone at any moment. When chaos happens, new opportunities and compelling ideas quickly appear, opening new doors towards drastic growth. But risks and instability also inevitably come into play.

  1. Managers achieve goals through order

Managers function at their highest capacity when everything is in order. They are good at keeping day-to-day businesses in control and coordinating with different stakeholders to achieve a common goal. They keep the team stable and processes under control so the team can achieve the desired outcome quickly.

  1. Leaders identify opportunities from chaos

Leaders tend to have higher tolerance of ‘chaos’, adopting an active attitude towards the ever-changing market and consumer needs. They look for the opportunities that lie around the corner, initiating strategies ahead of time to have the right products in the right place at the right time.

  1. The balance between leadership and management

Both chaos and order exist in everyday life. The optimal position of an organization is to find a balance between chaos and order by implementing both leadership and management.

A team with only instructions and orders might drift apart facing hardships, whereas a team with only creativity and motivation might struggle with coordination and time management under high pressure.

As you can see in the venn diagram below, managers and leaders share some qualities, but not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. An organization cannot run efficiently without either skill sets. It needs strong managers to guide and facilitate a team to accomplish measurable targets and strong leaders to build trusting relationships and engagement.

Common traits of good managers and leaders

If a thriving business needs both good managers and leaders, how do we identify who will be the best candidates? There are a few things that all good managers have in common, and similarly, some traits all good leaders share. If an employee has a several of the traits from the below lists, then they’re the ones you want.

Traits of a good manager:

  1. Process and time management: A good manager directs their energy towards facilitating processes and problem-solving. They’re always thinking about what steps the team is going to take next.
  2. Task delegation: A good manager is able to identify and delegate tasks to whom they’re best suited.
  3. Commitment and persistence: A good manager plans out and commits to incremental steps to achieve significant impact.
  4. Strategic thinking and analytical ability: A good manager is able to look at the big picture and translate into a detailed action plan.
  5. Problem-solving: A good manager has the capability to structure solutions when problems arise.
  6. Commercial awareness: A good manager understands the industry, the dynamic market situation, how the economy and all kinds of financial situations can change and impact things.
  7. Communication: A good manager is an excellent communicator who can effectively pass on market observations and project requirements to an employee.
  8. Mentoring: A good manager can provide constructive feedback to their team and additional training as needed.

Traits of a good leader:

“The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders.” – Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project.

  1. Integrity and authenticity: A good leader is honest and authentic with their goals and values which gives team members confidence in following them.
  2. Empathy: A good leader understands the values, motives, and emotions of their team members.
  3. Ownership: A good leader takes responsibilities for actions and decisions, and their team members perceive them as dependable because of their personal integrity.
  4. Commitment: Once committed to something, a good leader sticks with it until the end.
  5. Communication: A good leader knows where they’re heading towards and is able to communicate that to their team members.
  6. Motivation: A good leader inspires, motivates, and encourages the team to follow their vision.
  7. Positive-thinking: A good leader has a positive mindset, allowing them to pay better attention to the needs and perspective of others. Emotional intelligence and a positive outlook produce higher levels of motivation and ability to better overcome challenges.
  8. Feedback: A good leader is able to give feedback constructively but also receive feedback.
  9. Resilience: A good leader is resilient and able to hold their team members accountable. They adapt quickly when change is required.
  10. Adaptability: A good leader is able to think outside the box and look at different angles when things constantly change. It’s utterly critical to be willing to explore new opportunities and think through solutions and roadblocks.

RELATED: Why leadership skills are important for managers

Crucial leadership qualities in the face of black swan events

A black swan event is a term used to describe unprecedented, extremely rare situations that have a severe impact. COVID-19 is an example of this. No one (except Bill Gates, who predicted an epidemic that would kill millions in 2015) could have possibly predicted the disruptive power of COVID-19 due to its uniqueness and severity.

There are three qualities that are absolutely critical in leaders in the face of these type of events.

  1. Adaptability

In the face of black swan events – like the COVID-19 pandemic – having an adaptable mindset as a leader is crucial. Strong leaders are able to look at things from different angles and think through roadblocks. They have an attitude that prepares them for changes. They initiate and facilitate changes within the organization – it could be a shift into remote working or finding ways to measure employee mental wellbeing.

  1. Integrity and resilience

Integrity and resilience are also extremely important leadership qualities during difficult times. “If people are going to follow someone willingly, whether into battle or into the boardroom, they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust.” – Kouzes and Posner, How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It

Leaders who fail to keep their promises or act in their own self-interest will lose the trust of their team members.

How can organizations identify and grow future leaders?

Now that we identified the what and why of the differences between leadership and management, it’s time to look a bit deeper at the how. As a HR manager or someone in a leadership position, how can you spot leadership skills, support and create great future leaders? We will explore four ways to do this.

Before being able to manage others, you first need to be able to manage yourself. Future leaders are those who handle themselves well, display organizational values, succeed with their responsibilities, and are also able to do that for others.

Paul Trappett

COO of intelliHR

  1. Build a coaching culture

A coaching culture provides a healthy environment for future leaders to cultivate problem-solving skills and professional expertises. Rather than top-down instructions, managers and employees will have regular two-way conversations that give managers the opportunity to find out any hidden roadblocks and work with the individual to resolve it.


One way to cultivate a coaching culture is through regular 1:1 feedback and performance interactions between the manager and the team member. During feedback conversations, the manager should encourage self-reflection and help team members align their individual goals with the organizational values. It could be as easy as asking reflective questions during a feedback session, for example ‘What outcome would you like to achieve?’ or ‘What would you do differently next time in order to achieve your goal?’.


  1. Seek help from an HRIS

It is easier to talk about the importance of regular 1:1 feedback than it is done. When day-to-day business gets overwhelming, many of us just keep the idea of a 1:1 catchup in the back of our mind for a few weeks, even months. For time-poor managers, automated check-ins are your friend.


You can use HR software or an HRIS to run regular check-in or pulse surveys, manage performance, and identify potential leaders. For example, with intelliHR’s people management software, you can run regular check-in surveys to get a rough idea of your employees’ current challenges before going into a 1:1 meeting. It regulates your check-in schedule and helps you hear from your employees in an efficient way.

RELATED: How to measure leadership skills

  1. Encourage bottom-up innovation

Although top-down commands sometimes can be the quickest way to get things done, it can suppress the growth of future leaders on your team because they’re not having to plan or think for themselves. A good way to identify future leaders is by encouraging bottom-up innovation where asking is valued more than telling. Leaders and employees usually have better conversations when employees feel their thoughts and ideas are heard.


As a leader, aim to inspire individuals to actively seek innovative solutions with the assurance that they will receive strategic guidance and technical support if they are stuck on roadblocks.

  1. Ongoing performance management and employee satisfaction surveys

Effective performance management nurtures the individual’s ability to think critically and guides personal reflections in a rewarding and empathic manner, with a growth mindset. Once you understand your employees better, then you can provide suitable and engaging growth opportunities for them.


A good way to do ongoing performance management with high efficiency is through people management software. You can even track eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) which reflects the happiness of your team or an individual employee over a period of time.

RELATED: eNPS explained: Why employee net promoter score is a quick win with big impact


A thriving business acknowledges the differences between management and leadership. Your organization needs both strong managers and leaders to run day-to-day business and help employees align their individual goals with the organizational values.

Good leaders challenge comfort zones. By listening to your employees closely, you can constantly reflect on and improve the way you manage and lead. If you aim to facilitate better manager-employee conversations across the organization, look into a HRIS like intelliHR that facilitates regular feedback and gives clear insights into employee engagement and performance.


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