Workplace Roles: Knowing When to Manage vs. When to Lead

UPDATED: May 20, 2022
PUBLISHED: May 20, 2022
Workplace Roles: How to Know When to Manage vs. When to Lead

Startup and small-business owners often have to juggle many roles and wear multiple hats. Among those hats are manager and leader, especially in the earliest days of a company’s history.

But these workplace roles, though seemingly similar, have several important differences. It can be tough to know when to manage vs. when to lead, especially if you’re new at running a company or team.

Let’s break down management and leadership roles in the workplace in detail. By the end, you should know when each role is appropriate and when you should use one over the other.

What is management?

Management means overseeing subordinates as opposed to followers. More concretely, the managing role involves directing and controlling groups of people to reach clear, specific goals.

In comparison to leadership, management involves accomplishing the broad goals set by leaders. Managers then handle the day-to-day details of reaching those aspirations.

Management is generally strategic and focused on operational efficiency. Depending on the person or task, managers may refine different processes or systems to boost efficiency and minimize risk (a chief concern of managers regardless of industry).

What is leadership?

Leadership, in contrast, means overseeing followers rather than subordinates. As opposed to management, leadership means coming up with high-level goals and a vision for a team or organization to follow. They’re more charisma-focused—in some sense, anyone can be a manager, but not everyone can be a leader.

Leadership means inspiring people to do their best and accomplish goals that seem out of reach. Because of this, leadership is less focused on the small details of day-to-day activities or objective completion. Leaders set a goal and have managers figure out how to get there. They also often cultivate strong relationships with their followers.

Management vs. leadership

As you can see, management and leadership are two different types of work roles. Let’s break down some of their differences side-by-side so you can get a better grasp of their focuses:

Managers lead people. 

Their subordinates don’t necessarily need to like them, though it is always preferable. Leaders lead followers who prefer or choose to follow them. Successful leaders have followers who are glad to be trailing them, either due to their charisma or irrepressible reputation and vision.

Managers are task-oriented. 

They’re concerned with accomplishing specific goals and objectives, usually those handed down by leaders. Leaders are vision-oriented. They come up with a broad goal for a company or team, then delegate it to managers or other team members to realize.

Managers are focused on risk management and the efficiency of operations. 

The more successfully they can accomplish their tasks, the better managers they are. Leaders are focused on changing things up and staying flexible. They’re always looking for new ways to inspire and trailblaze rather than prioritizing stability.

Managers primarily ask questions like “how” and “when.” 

They’re concerned with the details of whatever their tasks are. Leaders primarily ask questions like “what” and “why” since they come up with the overarching goals or ideas for a company.

Despite there being clear differences between managers and leaders, they share several qualities as well. These include:

They have a strong attention to detail. 

All leaders have to pay attention to details to come up with new solutions and innovative ideas. Similarly, managers must have great attention to detail to accomplish their tasks efficiently.

They have strong communication skills, though leaders need this even more. 

Both professionals use communication skills to get their subordinates or followers to listen to them and do what is necessary.

They have good interpersonal skills. 

To manage or lead a team, the person at the head of that team needs to know how to navigate different personalities and get people to work together.

They have strong problem-solving skills. 

Managers need problem-solving skills to accomplish their directives or objectives and save time on projects. Leaders need this skill so they can come up with the ideas or innovations they use to inspire their followers.

They have goal-setting skills, though this is more important for leaders. 

Managers still need to know how to set goals to break up their tasks into smaller, more achievable chunks.

When to manage subordinates

There are certain times when it’s more appropriate to be a manager than a leader. These times include:

  • When you need to boost productivity among your team, especially when deadlines loom. Managers can increase productivity by focusing on the details of systems or processes and improve efficiency by hiring new people or changing those processes.
  • When you need to train new team members. New employees need to know how to do their jobs well, which is firmly in the wheelhouse of management.
  • When important tasks need to be delegated. Managers are often better at delegation since they focus more on who is best for each task rather than the overall goal.
  • When there are issues with processes or systems. If a company can’t complete its tasks on time or efficiently, a manager needs to step in and fix the issues ASAP.

When to lead followers

There are also times when you should lead your followers rather than manage them. These times include:

  • When the company is in the middle of a crisis. In such times, your followers may need inspirational leadership to stick with your organization and get through the rough patch. 
  • When you are first forming a company and bringing the first team members on board. At this stage, you’ll create the company’s core values and help to set the workplace culture that will dictate its performance in the future.
  • When you need to make difficult decisions like cutting back on benefits such as life insurance or 401(k) matching for employees.
  • When you need to come up with new company objectives or goals. After completing one marketing campaign, for example, you may develop another strategy by starting with a broad idea.
  • When adjusting or setting the company culture. Many company cultures are dictated by the charisma and quality of their leaders. The better a company culture you can cultivate, the more people will want to work for your organization.


Ultimately, both management and leadership are important workplace roles. As a startup entrepreneur or team member, you may be required to perform both of these roles from time to time. Just remember to use them when it’s appropriate so you don’t lose your team’s trust at a critical time.

Photo by @yingtk45/Twenty20

Nahla Davies
Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed—among other intriguing things—to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.