Some consider management and leadership to be somewhat synonymous. Yet, there are important distinctions. Understanding these differences is central to being effective in organizational leadership roles.

Leading focuses on qualitative, big picture outcomes while managing is concerned more with quantitative measures, goals, tasks and results.

The purpose of leadership is to foster engagement and alignment with a shared vision and long-term goals. Leading involves inspiring and motivating followers to work together toward these ends. Leaders strive to influence those they work with to bring about positive change.

Management focuses on the “nuts and bolts” of realizing that big-picture vision in day-to-day operations. The functions of managing are based on data and information measured in quantifiable ways. Performance metrics are one such yardstick.

Managing involves planning, organizing, implementing, monitoring and controlling. Managers focus on tasks, performance and results. They set budgets, ensure projects are on track to meet deadlines and set and maintain employee performance standards. They take corrective action when needed, analyzing the information at hand to solve problems.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Leading and Managing?

Good leadership can create a unified, engaged workforce aligned with the organization’s vision and goals. Authentic leaders can drive innovation and continuous improvement in organizations. They inspire and motivate employees to perform at high levels, collaborate well with one another and be proactive and creative in striving to achieve goals. This can help improve the employee experience, fostering loyalty and increasing retention.

Yet leading alone does not ensure standards, expectations and deadlines are communicated and met. It does not give employees the actionable means to achieve desired goals. The results of good leadership are also not easy to measure in simple, quantifiable terms.

Conversely, good management makes sure everything gets done as intended, efficiently, on time, on budget and up to standards. When problems arise, managers deal with them. The results of effective managing are generally easy to measure in quantifiable terms — the same isn’t true of leading.

However, results-based managing does not generally inspire the intrinsic motivation and vision alignment that create a highly engaged and productive workforce. Also, managing can be overly structured, rigid and inflexible on its own. This can limit adaptability and agility in times of change.

How Do I Decide When Managing or Leading Is More Appropriate?

Managing and leading are not mutually exclusive. Those in leadership roles typically need to do both. The approach they take will depend on their specific role, the situation, the people involved and desired outcomes or goals.

This is an important point, with communication being a crucial skill for both managing and leading. Take a company pivoting during the pandemic, for example. Managing is best suited for crisis response, making decisions on pressing matters like restructuring workforce models and pivoting production to meet changing demand. Managers set new expectations and productivity goals. They communicate measurement practices for results and employee performance in remote and hybrid workplace models.

But good leadership is essential for maintaining employee morale and motivation through such disruption and uncertainty. Leaders communicate the vision and reasons for a pivot. They help employees envision the organization’s progress, inspiring them to look beyond current obstacles and work toward that future.

Knowing when to manage and when to lead involves knowing your own strengths, your role, your employees’ needs and the situation at hand. Leading and managing often intersect, even in a single conversation. Learning how to integrate both approaches fluidly is key to being effective in any leadership position, whether as an entrepreneur, team leader, mid-level manager or executive.

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s online MBA program with a Concentration in General Management.


Inc.: Leader or Manager? These 10 Important Distinctions Can Help You Out

Indeed: Understanding When to Manage vs. When to Lead

Project Management Institute: Leading, Coaching, and Managing