What’s the difference between a manager and a team leader?
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What’s the difference between a manager and a team leader?

Today I was sort of idly thinking about the difference between a manager and a team leader. I suppose these terms mean different things in different organizations, but I think it makes sense to propose general definitions that clarify a somewhat hazy topic. We’ll assume that in both cases, the members of the team report to the manager or team leader, at least for the duration of the project that they’re working on. (If you work at a place where people have a manager and a team leader and the responsibilities are divided, all bets are off.)

Both are accountable for the overall performance of the team. If the team fails to meet its goals or is dysfunctional, that’s on the person who’s running the team, regardless of their title. I strongly prefer to think about these responsibilities in terms of accountability rather than authority for the reasons I talked about in my post about judgement and influence. I think that teams function most effectively when the members buy into the team goals individually because they see the value in them, rather than because somebody told them to do something.

So the difference is that a team leader should be thought of as the senior practitioner on the team whereas for a manager that may not be the case. If you’re the team leader of a team of developers, you should probably be the best developer on the team, and the other members of the team should respect your technical capabilities. If you’re the manager of a team of programmers, that’s not necessarily the case. A manager may be a fine programmer, but their core responsibility is management and coordination, not necessarily bringing an authoritative voice when it comes to making technical decisions.

The difference matters in terms of setting the expectations of the members of the team. It’s a dangerous thing when the members of a team think of the person running the team as a manager but they think of themselves as a team leader. Or if the team members have a manager they expect to be a team leader but who isn’t equipped to function in that role.

I’d be curious to know what other people think about these definitions. I haven’t heard of the two titles being defined this way before, but they match with my expectations based on my experience. I think that as an industry, it might pay off to formalize them.

3 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a manager and a team leader?

  1. The best manager I’ve had was not a programmer at all. The team took its goals and directions from the CTO, the manager took our individual breakdowns of what we thought it was going to take to reach those goals, kept track of what the dependencies for those goals were, facilitated communication and reminded people of priorities when those dependencies were blocking development, but had no technical input whatsoever.

    I actually think these roles are best split, and teams with a strong technical lead are often still missing a good manager.

  2. I thought about this after your opening sentence. I agree with your conclusion. I would put it as: Team leaders lead from the inside of the team, in the direction of a primus inter pares. Managers lead from the outside. A manager has no executive function, i.e. will not write code.

  3. Being a manager means you are responsible ultimately for the control of all elements of the construction of a project. Time, financial, content, paperwork, people: all general factors involved. You do need however basic leadership skills to be a good team manager otherwise you will gain no respect and/or acknowledgement from the leaders and people in the team. You would not necessarily be involved in the content of one of the general factors like game art as an example but this is not always true depending how good you are as a leader, manager and as a specialist.

    Being a leader means you have the ability to lead people for an objective, retain some kind of respect and motivate the team. A bad leader applies people and or role design skills unsuccessfully mostly due to communication and not recognising peoples abilities and skills. Being a leader does not necessarily make you ultimately responsible of the entire project depending if there is a higher hierarchy.

    Basically being a manager means you have to be able to control a team of people with different skills and personalities in order to achieve an objective, you do not need to like the people you are responsible of. Being a leader however has the same goal but motivates, communicates to all levels of understanding well, retains mutual respect amongst the team, first hand in Q&A and gets the best out of people.

    You will have some managers that will have a robotic way of seeing things because they cannot have say on anyone at a personal level. Being a leader means people genuinely will look up to you as a figure to answer and/or solve questions and/or problems which a team manager may struggle at a personal level in answering.

    Being a manager requires some basic leadership skills in terms of design and control of everyone’s contribution. Many manageable and leadership skills are similar which is why its difficult to separate the definitions.

    One thing that is important is that there is usually one manager that will communicate to many Teachers (leaders) below them for what is needed to cover: So for example Curriculum Manager to Art Department Manager to Art Department Lecturers (Leaders) . This shows that leaders (teachers) tend to be closer to who their teaching because their first hand to student communication. Many managers can be teachers as well which is why it is always harder for students to get in contact with.

    I have been a youth leader in my past and learnt what it means to be a manager. In other words anyone can be a manager if they try, but to be a leader requires more experience with different people, confidence and communication skills much more than if your just managing a project. If your a good leader and manager which can be a rare find your able to communicate, motivate well to people and manage roles for them to do for deadlines set out.

    Hopefully this makes sense

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