Student looking through a binder with a manager.

Every successful organization needs both managers and leaders, but understanding how the roles differ isn’t as easy as it looks. To find out more, we talked to two experts from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Tom Sechrest is the director of the Master of Science in Leadership and Change program and David Altounian is the director of the MBA program. Together, they shared their ideas about what makes a manager and what makes a leader.

1. Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.

Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, famously boiled down the difference between managers with bumper-sticker brevity. “That difference is not intended to be a pejorative statement about managers,” explains Sechrest. “It’s important for a manager to focus on systems, structures and maintaining what’s already there. That view is a shorter-term view,” he says. “Leaders work on a long-term view.”

2. Managers hold their power through a title. Leaders hold their power with the help of others.


Managers hold sway thanks to their position on the organizational chart, but great leaders can be found at every level of a company. A front-line worker whose tireless work and exceptional attitude motivates her colleagues to increase their own efforts may be a better leader than her technically-more-powerful boss who sits behind a desk doing paperwork, says Altounian. “People will willingly follow leaders into the trenches, not because they have to, but because leaders inspire loyalty, confidence and effort.”

3. Managers focus on the details. Leaders focus on the big picture.

The work of a business happens at multiple levels, from big-picture strategy to day-to-day operations. In any successful business, both kinds of work need to be exceptional. “A manager might ask ‘How do you do it and when do you need it?’ and a leader asks ‘What are you doing and why are you doing it?’” says Sechrest.

4. Managers follow strict rules. Leaders find ways to work creatively within constraints.

Sechrest often sees managerial-type thinking when employees learn about a promising new tool or tactic but discard it when it doesn’t exactly fit their company’s needs. “I’ve heard lots of people says things like ‘This is a neat idea, but it would never happen where I’m working,’” Sechrest says. “But when you push a bit, they’ll say ‘Well, I might be able to implement it with the people who work directly with me,’” That kind of reframing, says Sechrest, is part of the journey from manager to leader: finding a way to think beyond typical constraints to get to a new and better solution.

Graduate programs in The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University prepare students for professional success by helping them build highly sought-after skills. Learn more about our convenient weekend and evening programs.

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer.