You hear people talk a lot about the difference between managers and leaders at work. Often, we talk about “bossy” micromanagers versus people who inspire us and make us want to come to work. But there are actually many shades of gray here. Many managers are doing just fine with managing the workload or designating tasks without being a boss-zilla.
But what’s that secret sauce that makes someone a leader and not just a manager? It’s not a title or years of experience. We’d argue, it comes down to a few key traits, and one of them is how they communicate.
Let’s dive in.
Defining The Difference Between Managers and Leaders
I asked my team to share what they think makes someone a leader and not just a manager. This is what they said:
“Leaders work for their people. A leader isn’t someone who just assigns work or creates projects, it’s about listening and understanding what your employees need to succeed.
“You have to be their advocate. You have to help them solve problems. Help them focus on what success looks like and, ultimately, turn them into leaders themselves.”
“A leader will roll up their sleeves and help their team!”
“A leader has to be able to adapt to different personalities and learn what makes them tick, what motivates them, and what may be holding them back.”
“A leader’s role is all about the people, not the job. I think that’s the true difference between a leader and a manger. A manager validates the work gets done while a leader values how it gets done and who is doing the work. They value the experience of each individual employee as much (if not more) than the outcome for the business.”
“When leaders speak, their team wants to listen. That’s not because of their title. It’s because they’ve earned that respect. And they know how and when to speak and make the right impact.”
I think my team is totally right. But the common thread I see through all of these answers is that leaders connect with their teams differently than a manager might. They focus on the person and what makes people tick. And they communicate in a very different way.
So, managers are individuals in a workplace who have been assigned a role of ensuring that a team of people get their work done in a way that is profitable or beneficial to the business.
And leaders are individuals who motivate and inspire their team to bring their best to work.
As such, not all managers are leaders and you certainly don’t have to have a managerial title to be a leader.
Why Not All Managers Are Leaders
So, what prevents more managers from being great leaders? Even though any of us could say what we think makes someone a good leader, why can’t more of us achieve that?
The truth is, leading is much easier said than done. Just because we can all think of our role model or someone we think of as a great leader, doesn’t mean we can suddenly emulate that ourselves. And that’s because being a leader is hard work.
What Makes Someone a Leader
- Excellent communication. Leaders know how to communicate. Plain and simple. They don’t just know what to say, but how to say it. And they are often great at adapting how they communicate based on their audience. And they do it all while remaining authentic to themselves, so they come across as genuine and trustworthy. Sound hard? Yeah. It is. We’ll talk more about these communication skills in a minute.
- Empathy and high EQ. Leaders genuinely care about their teams. And they don’t just care about the worker and their level of performance. They care about the whole person. This allows leaders to focus on team dynamics, anticipate burnout ahead of time, and make coming to work far more meaningful. Does this happen to have a positive impact on our work? Yes! But that’s not what motivates a leader to care.
- Patience. No one is ever going to get along perfectly with everyone. Leaders of teams need to be able to check themselves and be patient with every member of their team.
- Vision. Last, and perhaps most rare, is that leaders have a vision. If someone’s a leader, it means they are paving the way towards some goal, right? Leaders offer a perspective that inspires others and motivates them. On a team in the workplace, this might be to create a better culture or way of working.
We could list many other attributes that great leaders possess, but these four are essential. And they take time to cultivate.
And, at the end of the day, people who aren’t willing to put their ego aside to help lift up others and really understand those they work with will struggle to go from being a manager to being a leader.
Communication Skills Separate Leaders from Managers
At the end of the day, I truly think that communication skills are the main difference between managers and leaders. And lucky for us, we can all work on that!
Let’s start by talking about the essential communication skills that leaders need:
- Active Listening. Good communication always starts with good listening. Leaders aren’t always waiting for their turn to talk, they are listening closely to what others say and know when to speak up (see timing!).
- Adaptability. No two people are going to respond exactly the same way to a communication style. That’s why leaders can adapt how they communicate with the people around them.
- Clarity. Great communication is clear and understood by the target audience. A leader knows how to make their point, and tend to do so succinctly.
- Timing. Leaders know when to step in. They know the value of a quick check-in and can read the room when it’s time for a longer conversation.
- Mediation. In a balanced team dynamic, it’s not just about the leader talking at everyone. It’s about how the whole team communicates, and the leader is at the helm. They have to be able to mediate and guide the conversation to keep it productive and ensure all voices are heard and valued.
- Storytelling. People resonate most with a message when they understand why it matters. And stories are one of the best ways we can do that.
Why Communication Is the Difference Between Managers and Leaders
At the end of the day, a lot separates a manager from a leader. But communication is a big one because it’s so much of how we relate and understand others.
Let’s just look at those quotes from my team again. Look at the communication skills that come up in nearly every response:
- Understanding what employees need to succeed
- Advocating for team
- Adapting to different personalities
- Valuing other people
- Problem solving
- Focusing people on what success looks like
- Coaching others to become leaders
- Knowing when to speak
Managers who aren’t leaders lack most of these skills. Think of the bosses you’ve had who didn’t listen to you or seem to care about you as a person. Or the managers who were always there when things were easy, but absent when you needed help. Think of the managers who didn’t share a clear vision with you for the team or who talked trash about other employees.
We can all focus on these skills! We can all work towards a leadership mindset and not a managerial one.
How to Cultivate Stronger Leadership Skills
First, ask yourself, why do I want to be a leader? How do you want to make a positive difference on your team or your organization?
If it’s all about you and cultivating your own influence, then you have to rethink your why. It has to be about something bigger than yourself. If you want to lead, you have to be worthy of being followed. You have to care about the people around you
Next, seek out feedback from others. How do they perceive you? Where are your opportunities to grow and be a better listener or better able to communicate more clearly?
And last, invest the time it takes. No one becomes a leader overnight and no one is perfect. All leaders might sometimes slip up, but it takes dedication to continue to improve, to continue to listen, and to humble yourself.
About the Author
Sydney Lauro is the Demand Generation Manager for theEMPLOYEEapp. Prior to joining the team at theEMPLOYEEapp, Sydney worked in internal communications for Chipotle Mexican Grill. She uses her internal comms expertise and passion for improving communication and the employee experience to create content and share best practices to help other communications professionals.
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