Supervisor vs Manager vs Leader: The Difference Is Important

Leadership in the business world is tantamount to success or failure. Without proper leadership, profits can fall, day-to-day operations can flounder, team members can struggle, and organizations may fail to find a single, united vision.

That’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s something that’s realistic in many startups and even established businesses. Interestingly, this pitfall may not be the product of apathy, but rather, the aftermath of seemingly harmless semantics: supervisor vs manager vs leader.

The words are often juxtaposed and used in a synonymous fashion. But without truly understanding the key differences between these job titles, you’re setting yourself up for negative ambiguity — and possibly failure.

Learn the distinctive qualities of each position, what their job duties entail, and how comprehending the differentiation can play a vital role within your business.

Supervisor vs Manager vs Leader: The Basics

Man sitting at a desk doing some work

Before diving deep into the differences between these roles, let’s first take a look at the big picture. While some companies tend to use the terms interchangeably, a closer look reveals more about the important differences between the three.

Supervisor vs Manager

Supervisors and managers are distinctly different, despite their use in normal conversation. Below, we'll describe the main differences, but here's something that should help you immediately discern the differences:

The Quick Answer: A supervisor focuses on the “how”; a manager centers on the “what.”

Supervisor Overview

Although a supervisor and manager are closely related and even use the same verbiage in some companies, they’re not exactly identical. A supervisor is someone who overlooks a team, employee performance, or a particular project. Above all, they overlook day-to-day tasks and operations.

In some organizational structures, a supervisor position may not be a leadership position, but instead, a high-level non-management position. In others, it’s an entry-level management position that works the same hours and schedules as their subordinates, as well as completing the same tasks on occasion.

Due to the concept of working the same hours and performing some of the same tasks, a supervisor is often referred to as a team leader — one that’s constantly on the frontlines with subordinates.

Manager Overview

A manager is more focused on what gets done in most instances. They may perform the supervisory tasks, but take the idea one step further by managing other aspects of the business beyond staff or human capital. Simply put, they’re more than just overseers of the work of others.

They’re the big-picture people that meet or exceed organizational goals and tasks. A manager decides on prioritization of the task at hand and creates goals and practices to achieve them — including creating the responsibilities of a supervisor. They also rarely interact with subordinates on a regular basis, instead working with a management team and relying on supervisors to ensure the completion of a project.

Note that managers won’t always have the same tasks and roles as supervisors, but they also might, depending on the specific scenario. It’s just another part of the confusion between the two terms.

Manager vs Supervisor: A Real-Life Example

For extra clarity, the City of San Francisco has developed the following job descriptions that define and separate supervisor from manager:

  • Manager: An individual in a high-level administrative and policy-influencing position who plans, organizes, staffs, leads, and controls a major function or effort for the purpose of accomplishing organizational goals.
  • Supervisor: An individual having authority and exercising independent judgment to effectively recommend to hire/promote, discipline, assign, reward, or adjust the grievances of other employees. Please note, pursuant to Civil Service Rules, supervisors do not directly hire or discipline employees; rather, they recommend a course of action to a higher authority.

This may not hold true in all scenarios and companies, but it can easily help you define the first half of supervisor vs manager vs leader.

Manager vs Leader

Just as a manager takes their duties one step further than a supervisor, a leader does the same with regard to the manager. While they may assume the same management roles as a manager themselves, an effective leader has leadership skills and leadership qualities, and may have more job tasks than managers or supervisors.

Some companies may define leaders as upper-level management. For example, a CEO, vice president, or chairman could be considered a leader. They create a vision and implement policies and practices that ensure that these visions are met through

  • Adhering to the mission statement
  • Streamlining operations
  • Maintaining a competitive advantage
  • Answering to key stakeholders

In other organizations, a leader might be more loosely defined. Instead of a leader having a certain job role or senior management job title, it’s more loosely defined. Nevertheless, these leaders are in charge of:

  • Maintaining a positive work environment
  • Inspiring and encouraging teamwork and individual achievement
  • Having the ability to influence others
  • Setting goals
  • Having a vested role in the decision-making process

Although every manager may have different tasks based on their industry or company, a leader’s duties are normally the same across the board, albeit based on the expectations of execs within the company.

Perhaps most importantly, being a manager doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is a leader. Without the right leadership coaching, skills, and mentoring, a manager may never reach a leadership role. And that’s just one part of why you need to understand the importance of the supervisor vs manager vs leader discussion.

Supervisor vs Manager vs Leader: Job Roles

Manager at a business meeting

One helpful way to further understand the difference between supervisor vs manager vs leader is to look at a description that outlines their respective duties. By discovering the roles of each in a hiring scenario, the differences become more apparent.

Supervisor Job Roles

The roles of a supervisor might include:

  • Training new employees
  • Enforcing company policies and rules
  • Creating schedules
  • Leading training programs
  • Quality assurance
  • Supporting staff by supplying the right materials and equipment
  • Turning to management when necessary

Manager Job Roles

Managers have a more robust role within an organization. Again, they may do the same roles as a supervisor from time to time, but it is by no means their main job. A manager is tasked with:

  • Monitoring the performance of supervisors and other subordinates
  • Applying problem-solving and critical-thinking skills
  • Planning a budget
  • Implementing company initiatives
  • Conducting performance reviews
  • Hiring, promoting, and staffing
  • Answering and reporting to the next highest level of authority
  • Managing conflict

If a manager can successfully complete these tasks regularly, they may have the necessary skills to eventually become leaders — or at the least — become an irreplaceable part of the company.

Leader Job Roles

Intriguingly, a leader doesn’t have a particular job role — at least not in the sense of something defined by a job posting. It’s a mix of the tangible and intangible; a mishmash of soft skills and hard skills. Some of these are inborn in the individual; others must be learned.

Because a manager isn’t necessarily a leader, the organization should have a crucial role in the development of leaders. But before you implement such a practice, you should know what you wish to achieve.

Thankfully, leaders tend to convey the same types of qualities, including:

  • Creating an open environment that empowers employees to take calculated risks and remain autonomous in most aspects
  • Inspiring an organization to share the same values and goals of the organization
  • Identifying potential in markets and individuals
  • Discovering new ways to maintain a competitive advantage
  • Leading by example
  • Making the tough decisions and sticking by them
  • Developing emotional intelligence
  • Having integrity, humility, honesty, and empathy
  • Creating, eliminating, or altering job roles, titles, and departments as necessary for the betterment of the company

Boiling It Down

The ambiguity between supervisor vs leader vs manager in media and content on the web makes the differences almost indiscernible, but it’s seldom malicious.

The most important factor to take out of the relative vagueness is to understand each title and how it applies to your company. Making a vested effort to define each role is an arduous task, but one that’s met with satisfactory results in terms of productivity, transparency, and even hiring the right person for the job.

How To Enable Employees To Transcend From Supervisor to Manager to Leader

Group of people working together to solve a problem

Almost every individual has the potential to reach a leadership role if they have the ambition, tools, and support to do so. Implementing mentorships and training programs, maintaining competitive pay, and giving purpose to the job can all lead the transition from supervisor to manager to leader.

However, any extra edge or push you provide melts the line between supervisor vs manager vs leader. In a perfect world, all supervisors and managers are leaders in their own right. You only need to unlock the potential.

That’s what makes an objective, outward approach to leadership and leadership style such an appealing factor. Perhaps your company doesn’t have the resources to create leaders; maybe you just don’t know where to start.

And that’s why a leadership training program is a solution to your problems. With a holistic approach to leadership principles and real-world application, a leadership training program or leadership retreat with Unicorn Labs can turn managers and supervisors into tomorrow’s business leaders. As a leader, it’s one of the best things you can do to help your team realize its full potential.

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