Team of people sat around a table collaborating together

Leadership vs. management: what’s the difference?

Managers are an important part of any organisation. They oversee the day-to-day activities of the business, make sure work is assigned and completed, and take care of administrative tasks, such as budgeting and scheduling, along the way.

But what separates managers from leaders? The words might be used synonymously, but they’re not actually the same thing. People work for a manager – but they follow a leader. And this distinction is important, because while some jobs may require nothing more than a bit of rote direction, many roles are becoming increasingly complex, and require an environment that:

  • enables innovation and creativity
  • fosters engaged, motivated, and empowered employees
  • supports change

This is where effective leadership is required. Leaders are visionaries: they think strategically, they inspire others, and they help develop the culture – and the future – of their organisations. According to Forbes, leaders are agents of change, while managers work to maintain the status quo. In fact, it’s often said that a leader shapes the vision of their organisation, while a manager follows it. So it’s important to note that while a leader can both lead and manage people, a manager can’t always lead the people they manage. Unless, of course, they work to develop their leadership skills and a leadership style.

Why is leadership important?

The 21st century has seen significant changes in the working world. Technology plays an increasingly important role in businesses and organisations, from automated tasks to communication methods. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic created a seismic shift in working habits, with more people working flexibly and remotely than ever before. 

Within this shifting landscape, leaders have been instrumental in shaping and directing the flow of change within their organisations. They have ensured that their employees have remained engaged and motivated, and that their businesses have adapted as necessary. These leaders have not been afraid to take risks, try new ideas, implement changes, and make the occasional mistake in service to improving overall performance.

Signs of a good leader

Great leaders vary greatly in terms of leadership styles, but they all commonly demonstrate a number of important qualities, traits, and skillsets. 


Leaders are honest, direct, and transparent in their communications with colleagues. They share their vision, they share their priorities – aligning them to organisational goals – and they share their ideas. Crucially, they also welcome input and feedback from their colleagues and stakeholders, actively listening to all comments and taking other points of view on board – regardless of whether the comments come from a junior staff member or someone in a senior management role.

Emotional intelligence 

Leaders understand feelings – their own, and those of the people around them. They harness this knowledge to understand their employees, demonstrate empathy, offer personalised praise for successful work and initiatives, and acknowledge challenges that have been tackled and overcome. 


Leaders are experts in their fields, and they share their knowledge and expertise. They encourage and enable professional development – and development programmes – within their teams, and dedicate time to mentoring and coaching people. They are also learners themselves, making time for their own personal development through learning resources such as:

  • in-person leadership development courses
  • training courses to hone their everyday management skills
  • online courses, particularly leadership programmes and management courses, through websites such as LinkedIn


Because of their communication skills, emotional intelligence, and knowledge, a leader will have a wide circle of influence. Whether it’s within their team, the wider organisation, or external stakeholders, leaders can effectively and respectfully persuade and negotiate with people to help steer conversations, direct interventions, and influence actions.


Leaders are confident in their decision-making and effective in their problem-solving. However, they’re not afraid to share responsibility with their colleagues – on the contrary, they actively empower people to explore different solutions to the challenges they face. But a leader is always accountable for the decisions made under their watch.

What are the different styles of leadership?

There are a number of different leadership styles to choose from, and the most suitable for any given leader, team, or organisation, can vary greatly. 

According to the Institute of Leadership & Development (ILM), a professional body focused on leadership, the most appropriate leadership style will depend on factors such as the leader’s personality and their current circumstances. With this in mind, the ILM argues that a leader’s style should reflect the situation they’re in – known as situational leadership – rather than their own personal references. 

Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders are focused on inspiring their employees for the benefit of organisational transformation and success. They seek improvements and innovation as part of their standard process, and trust their staff to help deliver results. While this style is ideal within organisations that value new ideas and ways of working, it isn’t always appropriate within organisations that value established processes and doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Democratic leadership

Democratic leaders regularly solicit their team members in their decision-making process. While these leaders will frequently guide conversations and will make final decisions, they also openly encourage debate and new ideas. Also known as participative leadership, this leadership style is effective in engaging employees and encouraging innovation, but can be difficult when a decision needs to be made quickly.

Servant leadership

Servant leaders are focused on people first and foremost. By helping and supporting people as their primary task, servant leaders elevate and empower those around them to achieve results. This style of leadership can create inclusive and dynamic company cultures, but can also create challenges around ownership and accountability.

Become a leader within your organisation

Develop your leadership skills with the Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of York. This programme is studied part-time and 100% online, so you can continue to work full-time as you focus on your professional development. Through research and taught modules, you’ll learn about management strategy, contemporary issues in leadership, leading and managing organisational change, and how to manage across cultures, among other important areas of leadership.