<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=391751051703966&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Try Flock today!

Book a Demo

Understanding the difference between leadership and management

Leadership vs Management

We often talk about leadership and management interchangeably, but not all managers are leaders—and not all leaders are managers. How can you tell them apart? It’s easier than you think.

Disclaimer: This writer went to grad school for leadership management—needless to say, I’ve got a few semesters under my belt to help me understand the difference. I won’t bore you with the specifics of conflict theory, psychodynamic approaches, and cognitive bias—but shoot me a message on LinkedIn if you ever want to know more. :)

Here’s the number one thing you need to know: managers can be leaders, but leaders don’t necessarily have to be managers. Here’s why.

What defines a manager?

Managers are often supervisors who delegate work to subordinates to get a job or a project done. One will almost always have the term “manager” in their title and be responsible for the performance of an individual or a team.

Most managers aren’t hired because of their leadership skills, but rather their performance—some of the best managers who have the ability to drive revenue and reach company goals are, in reality, poor leaders.

Free eBook Download the Flock Guide to Improving Employee Engagement

What defines a leader?

A leader is someone who, regardless of their position and power, works to elevate their team members. Leaders function as coaches, sharing their skills, encouraging others to grow, and sharing credit with their team.

Leaders possess all of these qualities—which not every manager has in their arsenal:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Conflict management
  • A positive attitude
  • Transparency
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility

Leadership styles 101

Leaders are often defined by their traits, but a major flaw behind that theory is the presumption that leadership qualities are a fixed skillset. Not only is this limiting to potential leaders who don’t possess certain skills, but it also holds back leaders that have these innate skills from improving upon them. 

Here are the main styles of leadership and how they can be developed:

Authoritative and autocratic leadership

An Authoritative/Autocratic style of leadership is important when a team or an individual needs to “learn the ropes” or be better guided through a project or task. For instance, members could be brand new to the team or the task at hand and need training throughout the process. This is also known as directing leadership. Most managers have a firm grasp on this leadership style as it is helpful in delegating tasks and ensuring progress. Directors instruct on ways to best perform the task, understanding each individual’s skill level, and setting norms and direction.

Participative and democratic leadership

Participative/Democratic leadership is best employed when a leader knows and trusts their team, whether through experience or personal connection. This allows the team to carve their own path without being explicitly directed through it. These leaders often double as coaches and mentors, providing guidance and reasoning as employees work. This is the most hands-on leadership style, allowing for mistakes and learning as employees grow.

Participative leaders can adopt a combined directing and coaching style of leadership, giving freedom, high-level direction, and objective-setting while providing feedback and allowing individuals to set their own pace. If the team’s ideals differ, however, this can lead to interpersonal conflict and a drop off in performance. A directing style is important here to keep the team on task and aligned to expectations.

Laissez-faire leadership

Laissez-faire leadership is appropriate in a setting where the team can work independently without hands-on leadership throughout the process—for example, when a team has been working under the same manager for years and understands expectations and work style needs. 

A laissez-faire leader provides a supporting style of guidance, allowing employees the autonomy to make their own decisions and direct any feedback or questions back to the leader. Being laissez-faire also means a delegating leader (a manager in this instance) would provide “hands-off” leadership, allowing the employee to take all they’ve learned from their manager to complete the tasks at hand. Employees only report up to the manager when they need additional guidance or have an issue. The leader’s role in this final instance is simply support, not direction. 

Why does leadership matter?

People in general enjoy and achieve their work relative to participation, reward, and achievement. Successful managers who are also leaders keep clear objectives in mind—creating opportunities, unearthing employee potential, encouraging growth, and tackling obstacles. This management style is sympathetic to an individual's needs, allowing flexibility of working style and personality. This is a personal motivator in which employees feel supported both within and without the workplace, and allows them to work for achievements on their own terms. Ultimately, this makes for better employee engagement.

Examples of effective leadership

Adaptive leadership

In my first college internship, my supervisor, the editor of a celebrity news publication, began with an authoritative style of leadership, since this was my first professional experience. She not only taught me how to perform my role efficiently but also how to work in a professional manner. She helped me identify my strongest skills—in writing, social media, and interviewing subjects for reporting. Once I’d learned the ropes, she transitioned into a more participative style of leadership, giving me more independence but with regular oversight and feedback.

My internship supervisor knew how best to adapt her style of leadership based on my familiarity and accomplishments within the role. By providing directing leadership that guided me through what I needed to know to perform well, she was able to eventually shift away from a guiding role, focus more on mentorship, and begin a coaching style of leadership that granted me the autonomy I needed to self-motivate and do a good job.

Needs-based leadership

My undergraduate academic advisor was not my manager, but she worked as a strong leader to coach me through my academic career. She helped me situate in my academic career, focus on self-motivation, showcase my research and writing skills, and carve my career path. She practiced a laissez-faire supporting style of leadership, where I made my own decisions and explored my own paths, and then approached her with questions and sought direct feedback. Our meetings were designated to help me navigate my academic and professional career, solidifying my confidence to enter the workforce.

Her familiarity with my academic work and trust in my capabilities offered more autonomy from the get-go. Incorporating a level of trust in my work and allowing me to take my own approach have always been motivators for me, and these leaders saw that and made sure to prioritize my autonomy in their work with me.

Cyclical leadership

Here’s a real-world example: at Hubspot, leaders are derived from leadership—the company prides itself on its culture of leadership, and employees praise the culture nonstop. Hubspot employees are often well-known both as “thought leaders” in the field and as independent leaders who move on to great things within the industry. This has set Hubspot ahead as a safe and welcoming work environment, while investing in top talent and ensuring that leadership is industry-wide, even after employees leave Hubspot. It can sometimes be overpowering (doesn’t everything seem to be about Brand these days?), but it’s an interesting case study of how strong leadership can develop a multitude of innovative and successful leaders.

Leadership qualities

Autonomy in leadership

Even in a directing style of leadership, autonomy can be granted, or at least inferred. One colleague I admire takes an approach that my teammates have dubbed “The On Ramp”—when she notices that a team member hasn’t had a chance to contribute their opinions or ideas, she segues them into the conversation by saying “I’d like to get your opinion here.” Even a brand-new colleague has a chance to contribute when this occurs, offering a sense of legitimacy and security that establishes mutual trust and a small bit of autonomy.

Emotional intelligence 

The ability to perceive, manage, and regulate emotions is critical for both face-to-face and virtual interactions, and the emerging workforce balances these two environments evenly. Emotional intelligence helps leaders guide their influence. Staying calm, even under pressure, helps motivate a team and also solidifies legitimacy. This allows for peak performance with stronger relationships and clear communication.

What does emotional intelligence look like in a remote workforce, though? The “online disinhibition effect” states that behavior is less restrained in a virtual environment. Understanding that theory and applying emotional intelligence to a virtual workspace introduces a level of empathy. This can help prevent interpersonal conflict, but there’s also a unique opportunity for emotional intelligence to allow a leader to observe a team member’s work style and adapt to it. A team member who requires more of a coaching style of leadership can chat with their leader throughout the day to get the support they need without having someone “looking over their shoulder” as they work.

Motivating leadership

In a 2017 interview with Marketing News, HubSpot’s Vice President of Culture Katie Burke says, “Really smart, remarkable people want to work with colleagues who they really admire in an environment that challenges them. That's kind of the core of what a company culture is about.” Leadership that understands, is flexible for, and works with their employees keeps motivation levels high, helping teams succeed.

This is why emotional intelligence, balanced with varying leadership and working styles, is important: this fluidity transcends generations, emotional backgrounds, professional experiences, cultures, and motivations, focusing on the individual. Being flexible and caring allows leaders to find what works best for each team member, which works best for the team at large.


Transparency is a key motivator in today’s workplace, whether you’re a manager, a leader, or an individual contributor. This requires a grasp of emotional intelligence—transparency is best offered with a regulated emotion. Being transparent confers a sense of trust between subordinates and their leaders or managers, and tells them they are being treated like adults and trusted with sensitive information. Transparency, then, offers autonomy to workers, allowing them to form their own opinions, make their own decisions, and understand how they’re impacting the organization as a whole.

Leadership, Team Management