The Great Question: What is the difference between a manager and a leader?

September 10, 2008

This is perhaps one of the greatest questions I find there to be in the realm of leadership is the question posed in the title. So what are some of the differences? Let’s explore a couple of the main ones by simply comparing a job description of sort…


Main function is to guide a team according to a task lists. Anything outside of that list will need approval from upper management. Most managers simply judge success in quantifiable terms like goals, production levels, or tasks completion. Most of the time, managers do what is needed to get by or the old adage, “Do the minimum required so you do not get fired.” Rather than seeing their team members as people, most of the time, they refer to them as “employees” or “subordinates”. Relationships with “subordinates” are fickle, depending largely upon the manager’s view of their integral portion in their own success. Managers usually take great pride in their title and may possess a touch of the high and mighty syndrome.


Leaders do everything the managers do, but take it to a deeper, intrinsic level. When presented with goals or objectives to meet, the leader will strategize on key strengths of their team. Because of their deep relationships with their team, they will be able to best understand which individual will be best doing which of the tasks. They appeal to the intrinsic need of that individual to motivate them to task completion. Leaders develop their team, call a weakness an opportunity for growth, and are not afraid of dealing with tough issues. They are able to motivate their teams to accomplish just about any task presented to them and are great cheerleader/coaches. Leaders are consistent in their approach to provide a sense of structure, but also to hold themselves accountable to their team. Their “subordinates” are equal members of the team and are referred to as “teammates or associates”.

Let’s look at some comparisons from history:

Manager Leader
Napoleon Sam Walton
King Darius of Persia Alexander the Great

Case Study: Alexander vs. Darius

There is a great scene in the movie “Alexander” where Colin Ferrell, paying Alexander the Great, compares the mission of those soldiers he led to those of Darius. This is such a powerful scene from a cinematic and historical point of view. Some say Alexander’s forces were outnumbered by the Persians by as high as 10:1-fierce odds in Darius’s favor. In this scene of history, Alexander is said to go up and down the front lines, motivating his soldiers and appealing to their Greek pride. Not to say the movie is absolutely historically accurate, however, if it were, Alexander presents a tremendous lesson for us to witness as the difference in leadership and managerial ability. He knew inherently that he had to motivate his soldiers to overcome their fear of the odds against them, in a sense, re-shift their focus. At one point in his speech, he compares the valiant reasons he and his men were fighting versus why Darius’s men were fighting.

Darius, ruler of the Persian Empire, was at the battlefield to merely oversee the crushing of another rebel. His men followed orders out of duty, not loyalty like Alexander’s men did. He did not fight alongside his men for in his mind, he was superior to those who served him. Alexander fought alongside his men, oftentimes, calling them to valiance in the midst of the battle. Darius did not understand Alexander’s style and as history proves, underestimated it.

Alexander became a legend throughout history for his leadership abilities, accomplishing what most in his time would have never thought could happen. So, the question remains for you, are you a manager like Darius or a leader like Alexander the Great.

Click here to view the scene I am talking about.



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About the Writer:


Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help churches and other Christian organizations incorporate some common business practices into their ministries to enable them to better serve the Kingdom. He currently works for SourcePointe, an HR Outsourcing Agency while continuing to own and operate Christian Management Consulting as a ministry. In his free time, he also writes a lot on Church Development as a Church Consultant.


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