I’m often provided the honor of speaking to emerging business leaders on the topic of ‘How Great Leaders Get It Done.” Invariably the question arises “what is the difference between a manager and a leader?”  I recently came upon Harvard Business Review article that sheds some insightful light on this topic (Kotter, 2001). While the article is over 2 decades old, the points remain poignant.  According to the author, the differences between managers and leaders lie primarily in dealing with three key areas of an organization: resources, people, and control.

Resources: Managers allocate resources based on long-term planning and task execution. They tend to give the same people the same resources to do the same tasks they’ve always done. Leaders, in contrast, allocate resources to realize a vision of what the organization can become.  Put another way, they strategically use resources to support actions that have a realistic opportunity to secure the organization’s future success.

People: Managers are often preoccupied with organizing people instead of aligning them. Management systems and hierarchy structures are created to run operations efficiently. Their purpose is to have people effectively perform a clear task regularly and routinely. There is little or no regard for improving procedures or achieving an aspirational future.  Leaders, however, communicate with their teams to ensure that their people comprehend, accept and work toward a collective vision and brighter future. They align and empower people to enable better responses to rapid changes. This kind of empowerment is not just important for leaders but at every level of the organization, as understanding and following a clear vision also encourages the confidence of lower-level employees in taking initiative and making decisions. The sense of purpose that comes with the vision also guides, inspires, and directs followers in uncertain situations.

Control: Managers use systems and structures to ensure behavior does not deviate insuring that results are predictable and repeatable–and risk is reduced.  But this level of control also hinders inspiration and creativity. In contrast, leaders know that working towards a vision requires change which requires people to be motivated, energized, and empowered.  Rather than corralling and restraining the thoughts, energies, and efforts of their people, leaders focus their attention on encouraging, supporting, and promoting their team to achieve new heights and objectives.


Kotter, J.P. (2001), “What leaders really do.” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 79 No. 11, pp. 85-98.