Supervisor, Manager, Leader: What’s the Difference?

HR consultants having a meeting on compensation analysis.
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How understanding the difference between being a supervisor, manager, and leader can help you grow your career!

Are you a supervisor, manager, or leader?

As you read articles and books, listen to podcasts, and watch videos, you’ll hear these terms, as well as the words, supervise/supervision, manage/management, and lead/leadership.  It’s important to understand them to get the most out of the material and apply it to yourself.

What do they each mean?  Are they the same?

You’re not alone if you’re unsure why this is important; these words are often misunderstood and misapplied.

If you’re interested in stepping into one of these roles, or if you are in one and want to do it better, it’s helpful to know the various uses of these terms.  It will enable you to not only speak with confidence but to also use the knowledge to develop yourself.  It will vault you ahead of others who have not explored these specifics.

Roles and Titles

Let’s start with the types of positions that exist in organizations and companies: non-management and management.

Non-management positions are responsible for their own work and results, while management positions are responsible for the work and results of other people and/or a function.  Managerial roles have a broader reach and the responsibility to evaluate performance, discipline, hire, and fire.

Supervisor and manager are both management positions and can be job titles as well.   Some organizations use one job title and not the other, and some use both.

If using both titles, supervisors are typically the first tier of management that has staff reporting directly to them.  Managers are the next level of management and may have only (or mostly) supervisors reporting to them.

A manager often oversees an entire department or division, including the people,  processes, and equipment.   Supervisors usually don’t have that breadth of responsibility.

The word leader is regularly used to describe the top level of management.  However, it isn’t typically a job title at this level.  Examples of leadership level titles are director, vice president, and chief.

Different industries–and organizations or companies within them–can have their own way of defining these terms, but these are the most common.

HR managers having a meeting.Tasks and Behaviors

The most important distinctions between the terms come when comparing the tasks they perform, rather than the roles and titles. I find it useful to express these three sets of duties in the following way:


Supervise/supervision is overseeing the work of others through such activities as:

  • training and answering questions
  • scheduling people and work
  • checking quality
  • facilitating the removal of obstacles to completion of work, such as broken equipment

Manage/management is directing and controlling organizational or company assets and people through such things as:

  • planning and budgeting
  • structuring and staffing jobs
  • monitoring performance
  • problem-solving

Lead/leadership is guiding the organization and its people into the future by doing things such as:

  • identifying trends and opportunities
  • creating a shared vision
  • inspiring others to commit to a new direction
  • creating an environment that supports taking risks and learning from mistakes

All three sets of tasks are about getting results for the organization through people. However, supervision and management create needed predictability and order; leadership drives change that is critical to long-term sustainability.

These roles are all critical and challenging.  They can each be done poorly or well, depending on individuals’ behaviors.

Supervisors, managers, vice presidents, CEOs, and all other management personnel can focus on stability or change at various times.  The combination of stability and change is dictated both by the role the organization has asked the position to play and the personal style of the individual.

To become more empowered in your own position and to prove yourself a key member of the management team, knowing your specific role will help.  First, learn what is needed in your role and where your strengths lie, and then move toward developing other skills and behaviors.

What is Your Mix?A leadership team having a meeting.

What is your current mix between the efficient operation of work (management) versus moving the organization forward to a new future (leadership)?

What should the mix be to ensure your own success and that of your organization or company?  If you don’t know, how might you go about figuring it out?

You can leave your answer or other thoughts in a comment below.

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