What Traits Separate a Leader from a Manager?

By Brian O'Connell April 20, 2021
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What Traits Separate a Leader from a Manager?

​Managers who don't develop leadership skills may be hobbling their career growth.

Whether it's an inability to persuade or inspire others, craft strategy, or engage with team members emotionally, bosses who ignore their weaknesses risk getting stuck at the lower end of the management ladder—unless they learn how to tap into the traits it takes to become a high-level leader. 

"I've frequently seen managers hinder themselves and their teams by refusing to get out of the way and let go of day-to-day responsibilities," said Ryan Denehy, chief executive officer at Electric, a New York City-based IT support services firm. "Making the jump from manager to leader requires a conscious shift away from handling tactical items and toward a focus on making strategic decisions."

The fact is, employees want to work for people they consider leaders, and the data bears that out.

A recent Cornell University study found that employees, "by significant margins," prefer to work with a chief executive who demonstrates what the study author called "prototypical leadership" traits.

Defining Leader vs. Manager

"People often think that a manager and a leader are the same thing, but that's not the case," said Joe Wilson, senior career advisor at MintResume in Los Angeles. "A manager's role is to ensure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do to make strategies effective, to make work flow productively and to make sure that procedures are running effectively. They monitor, they review, they control and manage."

On the other hand, a leader is creative, strategic and builds a business. "Leaders aren't so much about managing processes, although they're equipped to do that," Wilson said. "They're the ones with the vision, with the drive and the inclination to push things forward. Leaders are also likable and inspiring—meaning, employees look up to them and want to follow their lead."

Leaders also tend to be emotionally strong and stable and have great empathy toward others.

"Managers tend to be over-developed technically and under-developed emotionally, while good leaders have strong emotional skills," said Doug Noll, an attorney and senior leadership consultant at Mobius Executive Leadership in Clovis, Calif. "That is, in my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader."

What Companies and Employees Want from Leaders

There's high demand for business executives who are widely viewed as leaders by peers, staff and upper management.

"Companies will favor high-level executives who show those leadership characteristics," said David Nico, a visiting fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"These traits often include innovation, adaptation, vision, values, energy, modeling behavior, strategic insight and principles," said Nico, who is conducting research investigating the link between leadership, organizational behavior and well-being. "Leaders focus on the big picture, long-term results, and overall organizational and stakeholder benefits."

Emotionally intelligent leaders tap into the psychology of followers to take them to new levels. "They instill teamwork and motivation to affect the change they desire. Their social skills help them establish relationships built on trust, integrity and persuasion. They demonstrate their willingness to change by example."

Staffers want company leaders they can count on to move the business forward in a positive way.

"Employees look for a leader who trusts them, has their best interests at heart and can guide them toward a successful future in their business," said Sarah Thomas, director of marketing at Endominance, a business content publishing platform. "They'll happily follow a leader whom they respect and trust, who consistently motivates them. Employees are not inspired to follow a manager who micromanages or doesn't trust their team."

Growing into a Leadership Role

How can managers step out of their task-heavy management role and grow into true leadership?

According to Karen Oakey, director of human resources at Fracture, an e-commerce firm based in Gainesville, Fla., the journey to becoming a company leader begins with self-reflection.

"We must truthfully assess ourselves first, get feedback from the team, peers and management," she said. Then, Oakey suggests completing these tasks to find firm footing on that leadership journey:

Assemble a sounding board. Find a mentor or coach to help you when you have questions or feel you're losing your way.

Develop an abundance of empathy. Emotional IQ and compassion toward others are paramount to becoming a true leader.

Take a walk in others' shoes. Realize that each of your employees has a personal life that will impact their professional life.

Canvass the company for different outlooks. Get feedback from your team and perspective from all sides.

Be accountable. One of the most important yet underrated characteristics of true leadership is the ability to acknowledge and accept accountability when things don't quite go as planned.

"A leader achieves results by inspiring, motivating and encouraging their team to complete their role in an environment where learning and failing are supported," Oakey said.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).

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