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Managing Volunteers Part 5: Leaders and Managers – What’s the Difference?

Managing Volunteers Part 5: Leaders and Managers – What’s the Difference?

October 28, 2023
Howard Cohen

Any organization of more than a small handful of people that has goals to achieve has a need for both leadership and management. This is perhaps most apparent in larger organizations, many of which have multiple leaders and multiple managers. 

Setting aside the complexity of organizations that have multiple leaders (say an executive director and a board chair – a relationship to be considered in another post), this observation invites the question: What’s the difference between the two?  What do leaders do and how is that different from what managers do?

As a first pass: Leaders plan and managers execute. Planning is a forward-looking activity. Planning addresses the questions: “Where are we now?” and “Where are we trying to go?” The job of laying out a path from the former to the latter falls to the leader. Not that the leader does this on his or her own. Rather, the leader puts the people and processes in place that will articulate a plan to get the organization from A to B. Once the plan is accepted, it falls to the manager to direct the people and processes that will make it happen.

A primary task of leadership is to express a vision for the organization. The vision may be well established, or it may set a new direction. In either case the vision must be both compelling and achievable. An organization’s continued success or growth depends on getting the vision right.

Once a vision is expressed and accepted, the next task of leadership is to see to it that the human and financial resources are available to achieve that vision. This means having effective people in the right positions to do the work of executing the plan and providing them with the resources (time and money) to achieve it.

It is also a role of leadership to anticipate obstacles to success and develop strategies to overcome them. Obstacles could be anything from skeptics within the organization, to ill-wishers outside it, to policies, practices or rules that might impede the organization’s efforts to move the plan forward. 

The work of leadership sets the framework for the work of managers. Managers organize and direct the work of implementation.  Who will participate? Do they have the knowledge and skills to get the job done? What resources will they need? What are the timelines and deadlines? What are the potential problems? Are there alternative solutions if plans go awry? These are questions for managers to answer. Managers are problem solvers at the implementation level. They bring plans to fruition. They get the job done.


Establish a vision; create a planExecute the plan
Future orientedPresent oriented
Assemble the resources to accomplish a planDeploy the resources to bring a plan to reality
See and describe the challenges to successAddress challenges through practical problem-solving
Provide guidance to managersProvide guidance to workers

Of course, leadership and management are organizational roles. But note that in small organizations leaders may also be managers. They, in effect, give themselves work and hold themselves accountable for doing it. When this happens, it must be clearly understood by the leader/manager and by others in the organization. Role confusion can lead to ineffective performance by those who may not understand why (or may resent that) the leader is down in the weeds of their assignments.

In such cases, the leader/manager needs to be aware of which hat he or she is wearing at any given time and must share the existence of this dual role with all the others in the organization who are tasked with carrying out the work. A little communication on this arrangement will go a long way toward limiting confusion (and, possibly, annoyance).

When the leader and manager are not one and the same person, their challenge is to work together cordially, smoothly and effectively. Their working relationship will be the subject of my next post.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.