Young Professionals Voice: Are You a Leader or a Manager?

By Devon Ryan

Are you a leader or a manager? What is the difference? Too many times these terms are mixed up, and used out of place. It’s time to set the record straight”¦

When I graduated and started my first job out of college, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by seasoned leaders. I was a young engineer working with several retired military personnel, whom I found to be a gold mine of polished leaders. What I learned from these leaders was crucial to my future success. I took advantage of their experience, and I made sure I learned the maximum I could from these leaders.

Ultimately, I learned that both leaders and managers attempt to accomplish goals by mobilizing resources and influencing people. But it’s their actions and communication styles that contour their profound differences. What are these differences? The first fundamental difference is the way they set the direction for their teams”¦

Setting the Direction

Leaders set a vision and strategically chart out a course to arrive at the destination; that is, attain the goal they have set. Along this journey, it’s paramount that the leader establishes confidence and builds a firm foundation of trust with the team. By doing so, the journey is more fulfilling and efficient for the team. And ultimately, it is how the leader sets the scene and brings the project to completion. With established trust and confidence, a leader can create a framework that maximizes productivity. Moreover, it allows the leader to count on the team to effectively provide their input along the way. (For more insights on leadership, please read my article on the 3 Key Elements of a Leader.)

In contrast, managers create detailed plans to set their teams’ directions. The way they mobilize people is fundamentally different, too. Instead of establishing a framework of trust and confidence like a leader does, a manger establishes procedures and policies. They rely heavily on control and authority over people, to make progress towards their goals.




The measurement of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body.
Max De Pree

Whether it’s verbal or non-verbal communication, the way you communicate affects your team’s confidence and trust.

During my first job out of college, I remember every morning being greeted by my so-called manager. Even though she was called a manager– she was really a leader. She made an effort every morning to acknowledge everyone in the building before they started their day. That simple acknowledgment went a long way, and probably helped her solidify her team’s sense of belonging. Whenever she introduced me to my colleagues, she referred to me as the expert for LabVIEW, a software programming language.  Further, she said my expertise was exactly what the team was missing, and that I was going to help make this project a success. Her praise was empowering–because she not only recognized me, but she also believed in me.  And, immediately, I trusted her.

I rarely had that same experience at other companies. For instance, I had a manager at another company introduce me to my colleagues like this: “This is Devon Ryan; he works for me.” Notice he said that I work for him. Such a statement is a strong indicator of the type of person you are working with. Don’t be this person. Instead, he could have sufficed by saying: “This is Devon Ryan; he works with me.”

The good news is that it can be that simple. It all comes down to communication. The way you communicate verbally or non-verbally shows if you are a leader, a manager, or both. Words, however, can be futile–and don’t always produce the desired results. Sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves and take action–another fundamental difference between leaders and managers”¦


Action is crucial for progress. Words are finite, and will only get us so far. And that limitation is why we must take action, where action is necessary. Both leaders and managers inherently know action is a must–but they probably don’t approach it the same way.


It’s critical here to emphasize that it’s a collective effort in this journey. The team should cover ground as a whole unit. This scenario would be ideal, of course. Casualties and obstacles will present themselves–and that’s where leader come in. True leader fills in those gaps, and sometimes that means rolling up their sleeves. It’s under this premise that true leadership shines. Are they behind the unit–or in front? That is the ultimate indicator–if we are dealing with a leader, or a manager.

So one still asks the question: Are you a manager? Or a leader? The answer is that we need to be both. Perhaps, in the industrial-era, it made sense to organize the work, assign the key people, and just give orders–as a manager does. But today, people are no longer indistinguishable “cogs in an industrial machine.” Leaders set goals. Managers make sure the goals are met in the time allocated to the project. We live in a new paradigm, where value comes increasingly from the knowledge of the collective team. So, it is paramount for leadership and management to go hand-in-hand.  Both are complementary; and one must embody both characteristics for a successful career. A managing mindset will indeed help you maximize efficiency and get projects done on time. But the ability to lead will maximize productivity by nurturing the team’s skills, developing its talents, and inspiring the team’s results.

Are you interested in honing your leadership and management skills? Take action with these few steps:

  1. Change the way you communicate to change the way you think. A subtle change in verbiage can make all the difference.
  2. Change the way you act to change the way you think. A small helping hand can create a snow ball affect.
  3. Never react; be proactive. Always take a step back; assess the situation, and determine whether it requires management–or leadership. This split-second of contemplation can help you produce huge results in the success of your endeavor.

I challenge you to start fostering the skills to be both a leader and a manager. Add both to your repertoire, and practice employing the right skill at the right time. By doing so, we will create healthier environments for people to excel.

The mission is to lead people”¦ and the goal is to construct productive environments for people to build upon their strengths and knowledge.

Devon Ryan is IEEE-USA’s Young Professionals Voice columnist, and the Young Professionals Representative on the IEEE-USA Board of Directors. 

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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One Comment

  1. Great advice! Very concise. Devon has hit on some very important points. I particularly liked Devon’s point on how a leader gives credit to his/her team. The subtle way Devon’s manager (leader in this case) recognized him is indeed empowering. I recommend every reader ‘paste’ this article in their memory!

    John Meredith

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