The terms “leadership” and “management” are often used interchangeably. While there is some overlap between the work that leaders and managers do, there are also significant differences.

In a keynote discussion at Harvard Business School Online’s annual conference, Connext, HBS Professors Nancy Koehn and Joe Fuller explored the interplay between leadership and management and shared how they define the two disciplines.

Koehn referenced the work of HBS Professor John Kotter, who she said aptly defined the “activity of leadership.”

“Leadership, he wrote, is the creation of positive, non-incremental change, including the creation of a vision to guide that change—a strategy—the empowerment of people to make the vision happen despite obstacles, and the creation of a coalition of energy and momentum that can move that change forward,” Koehn said.

Fuller, who teaches the online course Management Essentials, relayed his thoughts on how management compares.

“Management is getting the confused, misguided, unmotivated, and misdirected to accomplish a common purpose on a regular, recurring basis,” Fuller said. “I think the ultimate intersection between leadership and management is an appreciation for what motivates and causes individuals to behave the way they do, and the ability to draw out the best of them with a purpose in mind.”

Watch the full keynote discussion between Nancy Koehn and Joe Fuller below:

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While these definitions draw parallels between the roles of leaders and managers, they also allude to some key contrasts. Here are three differences between leadership and management.

How Is Leadership Different from Management?

1. Process vs. Vision


Effective leadership is centered on a vision to guide change.

Whereas managers set out to achieve organizational goals through implementing processes, such as budgeting, organizational structuring, and staffing, leaders are more intent on thinking ahead and capitalizing on opportunities.

“I think of management as working with other people to make sure the goals an organization has articulated are executed,” says HBS Dean Nitin Nohria in an interview for the online course Management Essentials. “It’s the process of working with others to ensure the effective execution of a chosen set of goals. Leadership is about developing what the goals should be. It’s more about driving change.”

2. Organizing vs. Aligning


In the book, On Becoming a Leader, scholar Warren Bennis presents a list of key differences between managers and leaders, including:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people

Managers pursue goals through coordinated actions and tactical processes, or tasks and activities that unfold over stages to reach a certain outcome. For example, they may implement a decision-making process when leading a critical meeting, or when devising a plan for communicating organizational change.

Leaders, on the other hand, are less focused on how to organize people to get work done and more on finding ways to align and influence them.

“Your central function in a position of leadership is to mobilize others so they can execute a set of individual and collective tasks,” says HBS Professor Anthony Mayo in the online course Leadership Principles.

By developing a personal leadership style through self-reflection and honest feedback, leaders can learn how to empower their employees and inspire them to both believe in and pursue important organizational initiatives.

Leadership Principles - Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

3. Position vs. Quality


The title “manager” often denotes a specific role within an organization’s hierarchy, while referring to someone as a “leader” has a more fluid meaning.

“Manager is a title. It’s a role and set of responsibilities,” says leadership coach Doc Norton in Forbes. “Having the position of manager does not make you a leader. The best managers are leaders, but the two are not synonymous. Leadership is the result of action. If you act in a way that inspires, encourages, or engages others, you are a leader. It doesn't matter your title or position.”

Leadership is a quality that needs to be shaped. Through developing emotional intelligence and learning how to influence others, professionals of all levels can build greater self-awareness and understand how to bring out the best in themselves and others.

For seasoned and aspiring managers alike, possessing strong leadership skills can not only lead to better job performance, but an improved knowledge of how to influence the context and environment in which decisions get made.

Related: How to Be an Effective Leader at Any Stage of Your Career

Unleashing Your Leadership Potential

Leadership skills can be developed at any stage of your career. By understanding the characteristics of effective leaders and how leadership differs from management, you can develop techniques for coaching colleagues, delivering feedback, and overcoming specific organizational challenges.

Do you want to take charge of your professional development as a leader? Explore our six-week online course Leadership Principles, and learn how you can manage the conditions that drive team performance.
Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in content writing and social media. He has a background in video production, and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, cycling, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.