Are you a leader or are you a manager? Maybe you’re both? That question is the business version of the chicken and egg dilemma. While the terms are often used to define the same role and both are equally important to business success, there are key differences between leadership and management.

Daniels College of Business associate professor and Griesemer Fellow Aimee Hamilton has done years of research and teaching on the key skills for leaders and managers, and finds a few important distinctions between each skillset.

She shares her definitions and characteristics of each, the difference between leaders and managers, and how they can work in concert in a business setting.

What is leadership?

Hamilton’s personal definition of leadership is someone that inspires others to work together to achieve a shared goal. She talked specifically about the importance of inspiration for leaders, the most effective of whom need to be able to drive their followers toward a long-term goal, even if the finish line isn’t in sight.

Aimee Hamilton

Characteristics of successful leaders

Hamilton’s overarching theme for successful leaders is the ability to cope with change and react quickly to an unpredictable business environment. Within that framework, there are a few important characteristics:

  • Persuade followers to make necessary changes to achieve goals
  • Formulate an inspiring mission or vision that other people can buy into
  • Recognize personal weaknesses and find others to handle those tasks
  • Communicate effectively across internal and external stakeholders

What is management?

Hamilton leans on Henri Fayol’s Five Functions of Management to help define the role of a manager. Those functions are:

  • Planning and the ability to create things like a budget
  • Organizing a workable company structure that includes chain of command and role definition
  • Commanding and getting the most from people
  • Coordinating departments so they know the responsibilities of their team
  • Controlling and measuring how a team is doing against a budget or performance goals

While it seems like a manager must handle a variety of responsibilities, Hamilton said each of these tasks can be handled by different managers and that an individual person doesn’t need to be excellent at all of them.

Characteristics of successful managers

It’s really important for managers to be detail-oriented,” Hamilton said.

Using Fayol’s functions as a guide, Hamilton said managers should be able to fill in the details for each of those five categories they oversee. She also said the top manager in a company is most often the chief operating officer, while the top leader title is often held by the chief executive officer.

What is the difference between leadership and management?

While the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably, a well-run organization should be able to define key differences between each role. In the chicken or egg context, Hamilton has an easy differentiator.

“A good leader needs to be a good manager, but not all managers are good leaders,” she said.

Hamilton added that leaders need to be vision-oriented, while managers should be detail-oriented.

What are three key differences between managers and leaders?

Hamilton references John Paul Kotter’s leadership vs. management framework to differentiate the two roles. She says that the focus on the management side is setting up systems for success, while the focus on the leadership side is making sure people buy into those systems so they can be successful.

“Unless you have good, committed, motivated people in that system, then an organization is not going to be successful,” she said.

Within Kotter’s framework, Hamilton has three key differences between managers and leaders:

1. Management organizes and staffs; leaders align people to the vision and mission

Management must handle tasks like creating job descriptions and putting employees into the right positions. From there, it’s a leader’s job to get those people to buy into those positions and the organizational purpose.

2. Managers monitor performance and leaders monitor motivation

A manager must keep an eye on performance metrics, like a budget, and meet with people to ensure the original plan is being met, as well as how it can get back on track if it’s not. A leader is responsible for monitoring the level of inspiration and motivation among employees.

3. Leadership and management roles in direction-setting

A leader sets the direction for the company; the corresponding management function fleshes out the details of that direction. A manager takes a big goal and offers steps and strategy to take it into an execution and implementation plan.

What are the main conflicts between leadership and management?

Because leaders and managers have different defined roles, it’s natural for conflict to arise between them. Hamilton said problems most frequently arise when a company isn’t on track to meet its goals, as the next steps for managers and leaders can look very different.

“Leadership might want you to inspire and support people, whereas managers might say, ‘We don’t have the right people in their roles, or we need to cut expenses,’” she said. With its long-term focus, Hamilton said leaders might look for creative ways of course correction, whereas detail-oriented managers may look for quick ways to increase efficiency.

Regardless of the reason for the conflict, Hamilton said it’s important for leaders and managers to come to a shared superordinate goal. This is a goal that requires multiple groups to achieve.

“If they agree on an overarching goal for the company, then it becomes easier for them to find common ground for course corrections that need to be made,” she said. Hamilton adds that leaders and managers also must agree on company culture to move forward in conflict.

Become a more effective leader at Daniels

At Daniels, Hamilton teaches leadership classes to first- and second-year full-time MBA students and is on the teaching team for executive-level leadership courses.

“There are so many different ways in which our programs, our MBA programs in particular, help develop managers and leaders, and help develop good managers into good leaders,” she said. “There’s a lot of components of our leadership curricula that are unique to Daniels, and we emphasize a lot of different aspects of both management and leadership, including developing your own leadership persona.”

Whether you’re looking for an MBA program or a targeted leadership development course, Daniels offers many options to help you grow. Executive Education at Daniels offers coursework and experiences in High Performance Leadership, Accelerated Leadership and Denver Leadership, helping you reach your true leadership potential.

In all of these programs, Hamilton said it’s crucial to find your own leadership voice—not parrot lessons you’ve heard from others.

“You need to recognize your strengths and develop a leadership persona that builds on your strengths, so you can use your unique voice,” she said. “We’re giving people opportunities to develop strong skills around communication, particularly difficult communications.”