Identifying the Key Differences Between Leadership and Management Skills

Brandon Hall Group research shows that many organizations equate management with leadership and believe developing leaders’ management competencies are more important than competencies such as emotional intelligence.

Which Is More Important for a Leader to Possess?

We see management and leadership competencies as separate and distinct. Employees follow managers because they have to; managers are in a position of authority. Employees follow leaders because they want to. The ideal is to have a great manager who is also a great leader. But someone can be a great leader without being a manager.

Leadership is what moves organizationsforward. It drives engagement and talent retention and gives employees a sense of belonging and feeling valued. Management gets things done. That’s important but leadership defines an organization’s culture and its ability to thrive and adapt.

There is only one major overlapping capability between a manager and leader: communication. Every other major skill set is different (and even the level of communication is different). Here is how we see it:


• Organized. They establish and maintain processes, prioritize work for themselves and others and generally keep their teams on track.

• Detail-oriented. They must anticipate large and small problems and be ready with ideas and solutions. They keep on top of details so their teams can remain productive.

• Communicators. Managers must be able to give direction provide feedback and explain and collaborate effectively with everyone they work with. They should know how to resolve conflicts. They tend to be focused more on details than on the big picture.

• Time managers. They need to be able to get things done — and on time — and help others manage their time as needed. Good managers can multitask, navigate myriad changes and still hit their goals.

• Delegators. Managers need to get work done but also know how to assign work to others, provide direction when needed then trust them to get it done well.

• Visionary. While managers oversee day-today operations, leaders are more focused on mission and vision, and the overall direction of the culture, the department or the entire organization. Leaders can be good managers and still be visionary, but they are distinct competencies and doing both well is relatively rare.

• Curious. Leaders ask questions and are hungry for answers. They want to understand people and situations around them and how to improve them. They tend to be innovators because they are constantly seeking new ways to do things.

• Communicators. This is the one crossover skill between managers and leaders, but the focus is different. Leaders are more focused on enabling, empowering and encouraging. They are good listeners and coach team members by asking questions and motivating them to seek answers. The best leaders inspire through their interactions and their connections with their people.

• Emotionally intelligent. For leaders to inspire people to follow them — as opposed to instructing them to follow — they need a high level of emotional intelligence. This means they empathize with others, are self-aware, can regulate their emotions, are humble and know how to mitigate their biases and open themselves to new ideas.

• Accountable. The most successful leaders are highly accountable. They view themselves as responsible for themselvesand everyone in their sphere of influence. Leaders don’t view their team members as keeping them from doing their jobs; they view leading as their job.

Only about half of organizations believe their leaders have the emotional intelligence and other leadership competencies to successfully drive business goals. Among the top reasons is that leadership programs focus too much on management skills and not enough on foundational leadership skills.

In our research, organizations are split about 50-50 on whether there should be one leadership model in which the same foundational skills are taught at all levels of the organization or whether different skills should be taught depending on level. Believing in the latter means you are conflating leadership and management skills. Leadership skills are universal; management skills are differentiated more by level and function.

  • What type of leaders do we need to succeed in today’s disruptive work environment?
  • As an organization, are we equipped to develop future leaders? If not, why not?
  • Do we need assistance from outside organizations (consultants, third-party providers, et al) to elevate our leadership program to achieve the appropriate business impact?

Organizations need great leaders and great managers but the competencies are different and should not be lumped together. Management skills are easier to teach than leadership skills. Developing leadership skills often involves significant behavior change and practice in a variety of settings, along with effective coaching and wise mentorship.

Leadership development needs to be focused on all levels. Traditionally, organizations focused much more on executive and senior leaders than on midlevel and front line leaders who have more direct influence and impact on their teams, and have had less experience and require training, guidance and coaching.

Thankfully, that is changing. The disruption of the coronavirus pandemic changed many organization’s priorities in training leaders based on the evolving needs of the workforce.

Importance of Improving Leader Development by Level in 2021


Brandon Hall Group Strategy Briefs answer the critical questions learning, talent, HR and business leaders must address to manage their human capital. To tackle these critical questions in more detail, we built tools, frameworks, research summaries and business builders based on up-to-date research and case studies for you to implement best and next Human Capital Management (HCM) practices. To gain access to these valuable resources, contact [email protected].

Leading minds in HCM choose Brandon Hall Group to help them build future-proof employee-development plans for the new era. For more than 27 years, we have empowered, recognized and certified excellence in organizations around the world, influencing the development of over 10,000,000 associates and executives.

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.