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5 qualities that set leaders apart from managers

Managers and leaders share similar traits, but what sets them apart is that leaders are consistent, coachable and seek growth for their teams.

6 min read


leaders and managers

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“Leader” and “manager” are often used interchangeably, but in reality, the two couldn’t be more different. Managing is about making sure the day-to-day operations are being performed as expected. A manager wants to make sure their direct reports are getting from Point A to Point B, but don’t necessarily know how to (or even offer to) help that employee get there. On the other hand, a leader communicates to set direction, inspire and motivate their team. 

Bart Fanelli

Why is it important to distinguish between leaders and managers? The obvious reason is that underperforming and dissatisfied employees can cost your company big time. In fact, the US loses an estimated $550 billion annually due to unhappy employees, and for the average company, this equates to 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability. More nuanced is the mindset reset that comes with embodying a leader rather than a manager. You’ll continue to grow, learn and thrive in your own career by ditching the traditional managerial persona and adopting a leadership-driven approach. Equally important is that you know how to identify a company that embraces a mindset of growth and possibilities, offers ongoing coaching and endorses that coaching is part of the culture you are considering joining.

There’s a time and a place for both leaders and managers. And successful leaders sometimes need to employ the more process or task-driven qualities of a manager, but true leaders can push past being just a manager and typically embody the following five characteristics. 

1. Leaders leave behind an entitlement mindset

An entitlement mindset is characterized by believing that you are unique and that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you. This mindset denies accountability and, if left unchecked, can lead to a “me first” culture.  I’ve seen this happen a lot over the years in sales. You get leaders who are unmovable in their ideas and unwilling to confirm. They don’t research or collect ideas. Instead, they advocate for only their way. That toxic dynamic spreads and the company culture suffers. When everyone is looking out for their ego, no one is looking out for the company.

The best leaders have “management courage,” check their ego at the door, and are rewarded for maintaining business integrity while holding themselves and others accountable in both an entrepreneurial and meritocratic manner.

2. Leaders are coachable themselves

Being coachable is inherently intertwined with not having an entitlement mindset. A good leader cannot coach successfully without the willingness and humility to learn and absorb something new every single day. If you aren’t learning something new, you’re not just standing still — you’re falling behind. 

I am humbled every day by the perspective of others. During 1:1s, I like to ask team members to tell me what they think I should do to help. The conversations are very enlightening and often they are asking me to step up and have difficult, adult conversations with others, so that they can be unblocked themselves. Provided we are in alignment with our strategy or common baseline, I willingly oblige. 

On the flip side, managers typically repeat the same routines and behaviors that got them where they are in the first place, perfecting existing skills and pushing their direct reports to adopt the same “proven” behaviors. 

3. A leader’s actions match their words

“Actions speak louder than words.” In my example above, you can’t just be a sounding board. You need to do the thing that the person asked you to do. Have the conversation. Follow up on the conversation. Share the results.

If you lead a team, you must ensure your actions and decisions are intentional in support of an identified initiative. There should be a focused corporate objective, strategy and supporting initiative defined for success and translated maniacally. Failure to translate a consistent and aligned message will increase confusion, decrease confidence, and lead to low performance, high attrition and slow growth. 

4. Leaders are entrepreneurs

By nature, leaders are visionaries that set the pathways to excel organizational growth. Because of that, they embody a constant entrepreneurial spirit, always examining where their organization stands, where they want to go and how to get there with the support and collaboration of the entire team.

At the same time, leaders are willing to take necessary risks and sell their ideas internally to achieve growth, while managers are okay with the status quo and make no attempt to change it. If the employee faces stumbling blocks, the leader steps up to the plate with a willingness to understand and leads the employee to find the correct answer themselves. By doing this, in my experience, the employee feels empowered, like they have a voice, and typically becomes self-reliant throughout the process.  

5. Leaders understand that their people are their company’s most valuable product, and treat them accordingly

This might be the most critical differentiation between leaders and managers overall. Managers are focused on delivering against a specific product roadmap, set of roles and responsibilities, or strategy, using their teams to help achieve those end goals. Leaders instead have a nearly sole focus on developing and coaching their people, with the understanding that their employees are their company’s largest and most valuable investment—as well as the company’s key for future success. I often joke that I work for my team. We laugh when I say it, but I mean it. My teams drive what I work on and it’s their human capital that the company depends on.

Because the employees are the face and heart of any company’s product or brand, finding, hiring and retaining the right individuals are a leader’s most important functions. As such, leaders set the expectation that regular coaching is a part of the gig, and must be able to assess each individual’s skills/abilities and willingness to do the job. Once the baseline expectations are set, everyone has agreed to them and knows that all will be measured against them, leaders can really get to work motivating their teams and helping each person shine, while advocating on their behalf as they continue their entrepreneurial journey. 

To take that a step further, the word “I” should be sparingly present in a leadership vocabulary. After all, sourcing, recruiting, onboarding, ramping, teaching, leading and remediating performance require a broad team. Lastly, ​​leaders always keep their team informed about what’s happening, both present and the future, along with any obstacles that stand in their way.

Each of these five traits builds on the next, and at all levels, leaders push for core progression and drive through behavior results and people development. 


Bart Fanelli is the founder & CEO of Skillibrium.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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