2022-01-01 08:33:28    Robert E. Smith, PhD, Founder and CEO, the Change Shop

7 Traits That Separate Leaders From Managers

Most executives were, at previous stages of their careers, managers. Unfortunately, despite raises in pay and responsibility, many executives continue to behave and performance like managers rather than C-level executives.

A manager who can’t shake loose from bygone responsibilities and attitudes puts their career and their organization at risk. Stuck in the past and unable to move forward, an executive with a manager mindset is unable to unlock the full potential of his or her role.

Transitioning from a manager to an executive is a process that requires awareness, reflect, and insight. To speed the journey, here are seven traits that separate a leader from a manager.

1. Inspirational

A leader inspires colleagues encouraging them to expect, embrace, and cultivate workplace change. Leaders who inspire others can mobilize people to finish project and accomplish many things. To inspire others, a leader needs to gain and hone strong emotional intelligence and communication skills.

The best leaders open themselves up for feedback and dialogue, as well as inviting others at all levels to contribute to shaping the vision. The days of blind followers are gone, people want leaders who are approachable, communicative, and real.

2. Collaborative

Today’s functions are embedded in an ever-expanding range of business activities and because of this, there are a large number of positive relationships that must be established within and across the organization and their particular function or business area. The success of a leader and her team will be largely determined by a combination of the quality of their ability to foster collaborative relationships.

Leaders who are able to garner greater collaboration across their organization and with external stakeholders will be able to drive successful change and gain more support for their functional area. Additionally, leaders who foster greater collaboration towards innovation by getting team members to think differently and more creatively, will be able to achieve timely and higher quality client delivery.

3. Empowering

Giving team members the information they need to successfully complete their tasks is fundamental to ensure they possess needed direction and context. The ability to tell the story of why there’s a focus on certain priorities, in a way that welcomes dialogue and involvement, is an essential leadership behavior according to Loralie Thostenson, senior vice president and technology talent officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “Using this trait effectively motivates and inspires employees to achieve the desired results by creating an environment where individuals feel valued,” she says.

Having the ability to influence and communicate with employees and stakeholders at all levels of the organization leveraging various styles and approaches, is a critical differentiating capability. So critical that we’ve developed tools and training to measure and improve this capability for leaders. “People who truly exhibit leadership are able to create and sustain relationships that build trust,” Thostenson states. “The ability to create a persuasive narrative and be open to differing perspectives is critical to successfully defining a visionary roadmap with teams and stakeholders in regard to driving tech-enabled business transformation.

4. Visionary

A leader must possess the ability to envision the enterprise’s future state and execute to that goal through change management, business acumen, influence, negotiation, and other skills that are necessary to achieve the required change. Effectively executing change at the executive leadership level is often lonely and challenging since many team members will not want to change at first and many of those same team members may not follow the initial disruptors who are attempting to create the future and lead the change.

Many of the causes of this are structural because often there is a natural rift between executives and managers. Managers are often responsible for keeping the lights on keeping things running on schedule whereas a big part of executives’ roles are to be visionaries providing foresight into what’s next and shaking things up.

Effective leaders will lead with empathy helping their managers to think through the implications of proposed changes and helping to bridge the gap between the current state and the future. When this is done well, visionary leaders create enthusiasm across customers and team members alike. In the process, they help team members understand the new direction and outline for them opportunities to learn and grow professionally along the way.

5. Empathetic 

The most effective leaders are ones who lead with empathy according to Michael Fahey, an executive counselor at research firm InfoTech Research Group. “They understand that inspiring a team member to be their best requires authentic acceptance and understanding of the employee’s motivations and context,” he notes. In other words, they take the time to the know the individual and what makes them tick.

By contract, a manager is typically mission-driven and focused on the work at hand. “While there’s obviously nothing wrong with being mission-driven, this is rather blinkered approach can limit their effectiveness,” Fahey observes. “they may not be aware of what the employee is dealing with a on a personal level, which means they won’t always be in an ideal position to inspire them to perform optimally.

When you demonstrate through your words and deeds your respect and appreciation for your team members, you set the stage for leadership excellence. Understand and have confidence in your team members to let them manage the work that needs to be done. According to Fahey, “Knowing who they are and what motivates them is one of the competencies that separates great leaders from the rest.”

6. Flexible

Flexibility is the ability to effectively handle a complex and changing environment and this is one of the key traits that separates leaders from managers. This trait is comprised of three different sub-traits including 1) problem-solving in unique and new situations, 2) intelligence, and 3) a ‘challenger’ mindset. A leader may have to draw on either management or leadership techniques to accomplish a particular task but executives should be more oriented towards leadership. Executives should expect to spend 20 to 30 percent of their time managing their direct and the rest of their time leading (e.g., see the 7 traits discussed throughout this article).

7. Compassionate

The final trait that truly distinguishes an leader is compassion. This is expressed through a genuine care for the enterprise’s mission and the team members. When done well, a leader will emphasize career growth, well-being, continuous learning, and new skills development of their team members. This can only be achieved by leaders who possess a deep concern for their team combined with a focus on helping team members reach their goals.

Bringing It All Together

While the transition from great manager to exceptional executive is not an easy one, leaders who dedicate time and resources to developing themselves and their teams using these traits will reap the rewards. Then again, successful transformational change often begins (and ends) with effective change leadership.


About the Change Shop™

The Change Shop™ platform is an integrated package of six change measurement and management tools that transforms the way leaders support their teams during change and transformation. Our award-winning, mobile-enabled platform allows leaders to capture critical, team member input about planned or in-progress organizational changes. It is also a data modelling platform that uses collected assessment data to benchmark, track, and predict change commitment and buy-in to increase the success rates of change outcomes. 

Start a conversation with us about effective organizational change practices and find out how The Change Shop™ can help your team build the change capabilities your organization needs. Contact us toll-free at (877) 412-6628 or email us at to schedule a free consultation or platform demo.


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