Managing and Leading: 6 Key Distinctions

Published: Sep 13, 2022
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

Managing and Leading: 6 Key Distinctions

From American Management Association

It’s not an “either-or” choice. In business, every leader, from the C-suite to the shop floor, is called on to manage people. And every manager, whether of a department or project team, is called on to lead people. Whether you’re a senior executive or a division supervisor, leading and managing are both important job functions. Success requires both leadership ability and management ability. Yet, leaders and managers alike often lack a clear sense of the significant differences between the two.

It's often said that management is a science and leadership is an art. A science is broadly defined as a system, method, or sequence of steps aimed at achieving an objective. That definition certainly applies to a manager’s job responsibilities. An art is generally understood as the use of skill, knowledge, and imagination to create something new. That understanding reflects the calling of a leader, especially a visionary one. But leaders often rely on a method or system—yes, a science—to bring their vision to fruition. And managers often draw on creative imagination—a hallmark of art—to motivate people, improve performance, and get results.

So, what exactly are the significant differences between managing and leading? To help you excel at both critical capacities, the experts at American Management Association (AMA) have identified six key distinctions: 

  1. Managers deal with the present. Leaders deal with the future. As an executive or supervisor, you need to be able to keep a firm eye on what’s happening in your organization day to day, while also looking ahead and planning to stay competitive.   

  2. Managers are promoters of stability. Leaders are agents of change. TTo be successful, every organization needs to have a solid foundation of shared values, mission, and culture while remaining flexible and open to fresh approaches and new ventures.     

  3. Managers figure out how. Leaders envision what and why. Every business depends on procedures, processes, systems, tactics, strategies, objectives, goals, and purpose—an ongoing, cohesive combination of how, what, and why.  

  4. Managers seek efficiency. Leaders seek effectiveness. Doing things with the least use of resources, time, and effort. Or getting things done and getting results. There’s no debate—efficiency and effectiveness are equal priorities for keeping a business thriving.  

  5. Managers ensure compliance with policies and procedures. Leaders inspire cooperation and commitment. Yes, people have to follow the rules. But it doesn’t have to be a constant battle. The secret is inspiring them to embrace those rules—and go beyond what’s required.   

  6. Managers control processes. Leaders empower people. Systems and operations are essential to every business. And so are talent and initiative. As an executive or supervisor, your job is to maximize both your processes and your people.  

Which feels more comfortable to you, managing or leading? To increase your comfort and proficiency level with both capabilities, start by considering these six distinctions and assessing where you currently spend the higher precent of your time for each. Do you primarily behave as a manager or as a leader? What areas would you like to change?  

As Peter Drucker famously summed it up: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” For the success of your organization and your career, it’s vital that you focus on both the present and the future, stability and change, efficiency and effectiveness, and all the qualities and skills that make managers and leaders equally indispensable.   

About AMA
American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit