The Real Difference Between Leader and Manager


In the 19th century, Karl Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.” In the new millennium, the opium of the people is content. A massive amount of content is generated and consumed daily by a billion people who increasingly resemble addicts or drones in an online collective, depending on your choice of metaphor.

The only real difference between the two opiates is that, today, anyone can create his own personal brand of religion and attract a flock of followers to his blog or Facebook page. No wonder so many who’ve never actually managed an employee or run a business call themselves entrepreneurs and CEOs. They have followers, so they must be leaders.

Sadly, titles that used to be reserved for those who actually earned them have become so diluted in contemporary culture that they’re now nothing but labels for anyone and everyone to use in their Twitter and LinkedIn profiles to make themselves feel special. So now, words that used to be special have become meaningless.

But terms like entrepreneur, chief executive officer and leadership are simply too important to our way of life to give up their meaning without a fight. They represent great achievement and the promise of the American Dream. So I’m making a stand against their wholesale dilution and the ad-hoc corruption of their meaning.

I’m particularly disturbed by the ludicrous distinctions being made all over the web between leaders and managers. If you Google those two words, you’ll be blinded by millions of results: articles, posts, listicles, videos and infographics of every self-proclaimed expert’s version of the similarities and differences between them.

It’s a good thing Peter Drucker – the father of modern management – died (at the ripe old age of 95, incidentally) before social media became popular. I don’t think he would have had much tolerance for all this nonsense.

I was recently struck by an interview where LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner – a solid executive who’s done a great job running the world’s most popular business network – made a very clear distinction between managers and leaders:

“I personally believe leadership is about the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives,” he said. “I think that’s what separates leaders from managers. Managers tell people what to do and leaders inspire them to do it.”

While his definition of leadership is accurate, the distinction between leaders and managers reflects a popular norm that, in spite of its nearly universal adoption among the content generating and consuming masses, is a distinction without a difference. In every practical sense, leadership and management go hand-in-hand.

Look at it this way. A manager is a job title that describes someone with responsibility over a function. Sometimes managers have direct reports and sometimes they don’t, but sooner or later they all need the support of others to help them get their jobs done and generate results. And here’s the catch: that’s a whole lot easier if they have some leadership skills.

I don’t care how you slice and dice the rhetoric; a manager who lacks motivation skills will never be an effective manager. In other words, a manager who’s a lousy leader is also a lousy manager. Conversely, those who can influence others but lack the management chops to back it up will probably end up as motivational speakers, self-help book authors or politicians.

In the real corporate world, the terms are used interchangeably. Half the companies say leadership team while the other half say management team. The only times we distinguish between the two are when we’re talking about skill sets. But make no mistake, when we call someone a manager we never imply an individual who orders people around because she lacks the ability to inspire.

Perhaps the most evident sign that this is all much ado about nothing is that LinkedIn actually calls its top executives a management team. You’ve got to marvel at the irony. If there really were a substantive difference, I’m sure Weiner would have called his execs a leadership team. The fact that he didn’t says a lot about the silliness of these rhetorical debates and how far from reality the opium of online content has taken us.