Like so many things in life, I guess the answer to this question depends on how you define the terms. Fortunately or unfortunately, everyone defines them differently, and that matters greatly. No matter what or who you think you are, those who work for you may beg to differ. Do they think you’re a leader or a manager? Don’t know? As stated above, the definition is somewhat subjective.
The dictionary defines a leader as one who “guides” people, and a manager as one who “controls.” And for the purpose of this post, I will utilize some definitions, but they won’t be from Webster or the Harvard Business Review. They are mine, developed in the 30 years I've been in banking, business ownership, and yes, leadership positions.
Both leaders and managers are important in an organization, but it’s vital that those who are in these positions are right for their respective jobs with respect to getting the highest performance out of the organization. And, yes, even at the highest levels of many organizations there are managers in leadership positions. These “managers” may be highly educated, incredibly intelligent, and driven. I've also observed some true leaders who are highly educated, incredibly intelligent, and driven. So what’s the difference? There may be a big one. The secret is in the word driven. What drives a person matters.
A “manager/leader” is often driven by the desire for success. Their success, to be exact. Their decisions, interactions, communication, and goals ultimately provide personal benefit for themselves. Does this mean they can’t benefit an organization or be successful? No it does not. What it means to me is, they will not be as effective in creating and sustaining high performance as true leaders.
Here’s why. Intentions always speak louder than words, and actions prove intentions. The person whose focus is on their own success will be known by their values, which show up in their actions. Some people just don’t care whether you “know it or not” and will tell you it’s their ship and “swab the deck when I tell you to!” Others may be suave and articulate and think you aren't intelligent enough to know what’s important to them. The end result is the same. They are emulated by those who work for them. And that means everyone else will adopt the same attitude. Ever been in a business or organization where people say, “What’s in it for me?” or “Why should I do their work? That’s not my job.” I bet I can tell you what their manager (notice I didn't say leader) is like.
Let’s talk about leaders. You know them by their staff. They are a team. They outperform other teams and individuals. They strive for success at a high level, not for themselves, but for their team and the organization. They are the first to volunteer for anything. They take leadership roles without being asked. They delegate tasks with high expectations and faith. They serve, anywhere and everywhere. They take on causes that impact their fellow workers, communities, and individuals in need. They get more excited about the success of their team and teammates than their own. They find joy not in personal recognition, but in recognition for the team. Why do they act like that? Because they are emulating their leader. What kind of team do you want working for you? What kind of a boss do you want to work for?
A leader is someone who values the success of others above their own. Those working for a leader know he or she sincerely cares about their success because they prove it through their actions. The result of this leadership is loyalty and a drive for success that causes people to get out of their comfort zones and do things for the team they wouldn't do for themselves. The end result is high-performing individuals, high-performing teams, high esprit de corps, and exceptional results.