Gini Dietrich

The 12 Traits that Define Managers vs. Leaders

By: Gini Dietrich | August 31, 2016 | 

The 12 Traits that Define Managers vs. LeadersI remember being a young whippersnapper in the big agency world.

I could not wait until someone gave me a chance to manage others.

I just knew that would be my big break!

The chance came a lot sooner that I expected…or probably deserved. I was all of maybe 25 and a young woman a couple of years older than me was on probation.

My supervisor really wanted to give her one more shot at turning things around and she figured it was a good way for me to cut my teeth on management.

I was given a set of criteria: Meet with her daily, create a set of goals, hold her accountable to those goals, check-in with our superiors once a week.

I really wanted to succeed. I wanted to show that I could make difference, but also that I could help this young woman keep her job.

I failed. Miserably.

Failure Sometimes Equals Success

The young woman on probation wasn’t going to make it, but no one told me that.

I met with her once a day to review the goals she’d be given and to provide feedback on where to improve.

The first couple of meetings were hard—she did NOT want to be there (and, really, who can blame her?).

And then she just stopped showing up.

She was gone about two weeks after they’d “given” her to me to manage.

From there, I began to move up the ladder, to my great surprise.

Who promotes a person who can’t keep someone employed for more than two weeks?

It turns out, it was just a test to see how I would handle myself; not to see if she’d stay.

But on my reviews every year, I heard a lot of really great things and two worrisome things:

Learn to be more strategic and stop complimenting people all the time. You have to be critical and give people things to work on. If all you do is compliment them, they’ll never learn.

So what did I do?

I stopped complimenting so much.

Great management tool, huh?

And I didn’t get any better.

I like to help people feel good about the work they do. I hate to be micromanaged. And I hate process and structure.

I assumed everyone worked that way.

Turns out those are three really bad traits for a manager.

I began to feel badly about myself and tried really hard to develop traits that I was told made a good manager.

My growth kept stalling.

Managers vs. Leaders

What no one recognized in me were my leadership traits; they were too busy trying to fit me into their corporate ladder box.

And I didn’t know the difference between managers vs. leaders (or had the confidence) to be able to say, “Yoo hoo! This isn’t the right fit for me!”

So what’s the difference, you ask?

I love the way the Wall Street Journal defines managers vs. leaders:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

The nice thing is that organizations need both managers and leaders; there isn’t a right way or a wrong way.

I’m confident my team sometimes thinks, “I swear, if she asks me ‘what do I think’ one more time…”

There are many times, as humans, we just need someone to control, focus on systems and structures, and make decisions.

Perhaps there is a nice combination of both manager and leader that makes for the perfect colleague.

It’s up to you to define what that looks like, take qualities from each, and become the colleague you’d like to have on your team.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Frank Bagli

    Excellent reminder and refresh. Frankly caught my breath this morning thinking about a discussion we are having as a team today. It will go better 😉

    • Gini Dietrich

      I hope it went well!

      • Frank Bagli


        Candidly I am not 100% sure. The team left energized with a two “alignment assignments” to improve some disconnects we are currently having with production. Simple lightweight approaches. So we will see. We have a quick pulse meeting every Wednesday 15 mins. So more to come. Thanks for asking. Have a super day!

  • Combining the elements of a boss and a leader may make one a great colleague, but if you want to have followers, if you really want to achieve desired outcomes for your organization, your team, and yourself, choose to be a leader, every time. And if you’re truly leading people, you don’t have to worry as much about management, because they’ll do a great job of managing themselves!

    • Gini Dietrich

      I was just telling my mom what a great team I have here and how I don’t have to worry. Everyone does their jobs and does them well. So either I’ve hired people waaaaaay smarter than me or I’ve figured out this leadership thing. Or a combination of both.

      • Laura Petrolino

        But hiring the right people is what good leaders do as well. So both, but chicken and the egg, nature/nurture. I think you’ve developed a team that takes ownership in their work and likewise provide enough support , freedom, and motivation to help that natural sense of ownership grow. Even the hardiest of plants won’t thrive in bad soil

        • Or without water, as I learned with my hydrangeas.

      • I’m voting for hired people much smarter than you. MUCH, much smarter than you! 🙂

        • And here I thought I was getting away without hearing this smart ass remark.

  • As I am sure you can imagine, I am crazy about this post. I don’t know if I’ll ever be in a position to manage people again (or if I want to…) but life experience has shown me in an ultra-clear way that the leaders who make a difference (besides the awful lessons that simply light fires under us to do something different with ourselves) are the ones who put in the really hard work to help the people they are responsible for grow … and that includes asking the hard questions and sharing the not-always-praiseful feedback. Great breakdown.

    • Gini Dietrich

      I just read an interesting article about a guy in PR who just lost a promotion because he’s not strategic. What was interesting is he said no one has ever sat him down and said, “This is what strategy looks like and how you think about it.” He’s only been in his career for five years, but it was a great reminder that good leaders take the time to explain those kinds of things.

      • This is so basic, but one of my first full-time bosses sat me down and had me make a list of what I had to do. I mean, SO BASIC. But there was something about the combination of the fact that she took the time to emphasize it, how she helped me prioritize the list once it was made, etc., that made a lasting impression.

  • I have learned to answer “What do you think?” Before I ask you. Meaning I write, “Before you ask, I think…” Otherwise my head will explode. 😀


    • Gini Dietrich

      I know! And it makes me so proud!!

  • A great leader is a great motivator. The rest takes care of itself. I have had the privilege of working for a startup that had great leadership, and as a result, built an incredible company with the type of culture and business success that every company covets. I learned a great deal from those leaders and they helped me grow and flourish in my career.
    Once again, I am working for an organization with great leadership and a wonderful team. I am so grateful to be doing what I love, for a company that I love working for BECAUSE of a great leader. 🙂

    • Gini Dietrich


  • Ah, the manager vs. leader discussion – this is part of OB (organizational behavior) classes in a biz school student’s first term (typically). Always a hot topic and an extremely important one. Some people say you can be both -but that’s difficult to do based on what you have outlined above.

    The larger question is, when will you be an adjunct prof at Booth or Kellogg? Hmm?

    • Gini Dietrich


  • Bob Schrichte

    I wonder if “Fixing the Breakdows” was done intentionally.

    • Ha! Nope…but great catch! I almost want to leave it.

  • This is such a great post. I sort of straddle the manager/leader line in a volunteer position I hold, and it’s tricky! The list from the WSJ really highlights how challenging it can be to go back and forth between the two. I sometimes feel like I have a split personality disorder. The value of both is undeniable, but knowing the difference is important to ensuring you’re on the right track for the role you’re supposed to play.

    • Um, we could have told you you have split personality disorder.

      • Thank goodness I don’t come here for a self-esteem boost.

        • That, literally, made me laugh out loud! LLOL, as we call it around here.

  • You seem to have come a long way. Not in years of course, but in leadership.

    • You know what they don’t teach you as you’re coming up through the ranks? Strategy and leadership. That’s why Peter’s Principles exists. I had to hire a leadership coach to help me for a few years. It’s all his doing.

  • Corina Manea

    These are great reminders.

    Unfortunately too many organizations have too many managers and very few leaders.

    I truly believe every employee, no matter their job or position in a company should read a leadership book. It will help expand their horizons, be better at their jobs and with their colleagues. And above all they’d know what to ask from their superior.

    • Gini Dietrich

      I totally agree! Totally, totally agree!

  • Love this for so many reasons. It’s incredibly important to give your team room to figure things out and try their own approaches. Otherwise, how can they grow?