Leadership vs. Supervision - How Leaders Are Different

In this article, we will discuss the differences between leadership, supervision, and management.

"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."
Peter Drucker

Let’s get started.

What does supervising even mean?

The very definition of “supervise” means to “observe and direct the execution of.” However, not all people acting as “supervisors” have what it takes to be an effective leader while observing and directing those below them.

Fortunately, everyone can learn to be an effective and conscientious leader. Once you combine the best traits of a leader with a supervisor, you get someone who knows how to lead and supervise their team to complete projects on a timely basis, increase productivity, and overall, make the workplace an efficient machine working in unison.

What is a supervisor?

In today’s corporate world, titles are everything and symbolize power among executives and low-level employees alike. Unfortunately, nowadays, the title of “supervisor” is thrown around far too much to the great dismay of many and holds with it a position that, first and foremost, has duties including:

  • Overseeing employees
  • Seeing the completion of projects
  • Setting deadlines
  • Training employees
  • Completing evaluations
  • Sending out internal communications
  • Updating on changes in the company
  • Communicating with upper management

And much, much more. In short, today’s supervisors are more administrative than they are innovative. Today’s supervisor title is merely a formality with which employees must address those above them, whereas a leader has no formality and isn’t always an administrative title. Even a peer who isn’t your supervisor in the administrative or formal sense can still be your and your team’s leader.

This difference between administrative and formal titles is just one of the many differences between a leader and a supervisor. Seeing the difference between a supervisor and a leader is just as important as seeing how a follower reacts to both.

The role of followers vs supervisors

Most people have been exposed to a supervisor, at least in some way, shape, or form, at some point in their life. Even the relationship between a teacher and a student, a parent, and child, or a therapist or doctor and their patient can be seen as supervisory.

But of all supervisors you’ve been exposed to in your life, have you ever come across one that really felt like they were a leader in your life? Someone that not just taught and guided you but also was compassionate and powerful enough to have your loyalty and to follow? The chances are, probably not!

This is because, in today’s world, it’s very easy to simply apply for a “supervisor” position, engage in office politics, and become a supervisor without first experiencing what it means to be a true leader. In short, being a supervisor can be as simple as being promoted for doing well at your job, being promoted for being friends with people in upper management, or being promoted for having the best sales in the company.

However, none of these promotions ever prepare a supervisor for being a leader. Much the same, none of these promotions can ever encourage people to view a supervisor who is not a leader as trustworthy, worthy of their respect and effort, or even needing to be recognized as a supervisor. This might be a hard truth to face, but it’s important to understand the role of followers who view people as supervisors or leaders.

Do I need to be a leader to be a supervisor?

The answer to that question is a bit complex. The truth is, yes and no. To be a supervisor, you need to at least have the respect of your employees, who will then listen to your instructions and advice. In short, you do need leadership to be a supervisor that can control their employees.

However, you can still be a supervisor (albeit an ineffective one) without needing leadership skills. For instance, if a supervisor finds a member of their team being insubordinate, it’s easy to just fire them and instill fear in other employees, leading to a work environment where it isn’t your leadership skills, but the fear of being fired, losing money, and losing their home that drives employees to listen to their supervisors.

This is known as relying on your position power and is never a sustainable form of supervision in the workplace. True leadership has followers that aren’t simply just scared of you and your title but can genuinely learn from and be inspired by you to give their best efforts to the company.

How leadership and management helps businesses

At the end of the day, supervisors are put in positions of management to (hopefully) increase productivity and promote the welfare of a business. But, if a supervisor is not a leader, employees can view their jobs as being a waste, end up quitting, and lose sight of what their goals with the company are.

In contract to supervising, a leader can have a huge effect on the business itself, inspiring others to be creative and impact others through their creativity. A leader encourages employees and boosts morale, and helps employees understand their role in the organization, and recognizes their contributions. Also, leaders focus on growth.

None of this is required by a supervisor, who needs not to inspire and encourage others to stay motivated for the good of an organization. Sadly, this is the downfall of businesses that do not promote supervisors based on leadership skills but intrinsic motivations instead. Many businesses nowadays say they want a supervisor who is creative and engaging, but in reality, will more than likely choose a supervisor that plays ball and is easy to work with.

Often,supervisors tend to make decisions without consulting subordinates. In the long run, having a supervisor instead of a leader hurts morale, causing employees to question their role, and leads to the diminishment of an organization.

Do leaders or managers have titles?

Those who possess genuine leadership need no title behind their name. Effective leaders can be anyone from low-level employees to top executives, but they don’t need to be supervisors at any time if they have natural leadership abilities. They bring employees together, bring out the best in them, and know how to get people to listen and follow them.

Leaders, by very definition, are people who command a group, organization, or even a country. Leaders are, first and foremost, influencers at any rung of the corporate ladder. As such, they don’t need a title to gain the respect of others, and in fact, if they do gain a title, it won’t be until after many years of clawing their way through the ranks of the corporate ladder.

Think about it - most great leaders were not just given a title. Emperors, conquistadors, even financial giants such as Warren Buffet weren’t simply given money or a business. They had to start their dreams from the ground up, and because of their ability to become leaders without having titles, such as supervisors, they are now able to be viewed as powerful, top of their class, and experts in leadership.

Short vs long-term views

Because many leaders have had to endure hardship to get to where they are, this might also be why leaders can view things in long-term stages, as opposed to supervisors who only have short-term goals in mind.

According to Warren Bennis’s 12 differences between leaders and managers, this short vs long-term view difference is an important distinction between an effective leader and a mediocre supervisor.

However, it’s not the fault of the supervisor, as they are appointed to that role on an administrative level. They must keep the short-term goal in mind, while leaders with no formal title, or who are amazing supervisors, have the ability to be creative and flexible with their goals and think ahead into the future. This leads to another characteristic of leaders that supervisors might not have: Innovation.

Innovation in leadership

Have you ever come up with a new spreadsheet for your company? Or have you figured out a way to maximize profits and reduce costs? Or even come up with a way to inspire your co-workers to boost sales? All these are examples of innovation, however small they might be, and are a key difference between supervisors and leaders.

Leaders have the capability to be innovative, create solutions, and think outside the box in ways that only inspire their team but also benefit an organization. This is not required of a supervisor whose goal is to handle day-to-day items on the agenda.

Leaders are risk-takers who innovate for the good of their company or for their team. For instance, Tom Monaghan is the leader and owner of Domino’s Pizza. While everyone else was opening up franchise stores by having people pay a fee, his stores were slowly failing to the dismay of Monaghan. Instead of making franchise owners pay a fee, he made them manage a Domino’s store successfully for a year, and once they did, let them open up a franchise. This new, innovative method of leadership is what made Domino’s the empire it is today.

Leaders are one-of-a-kind

Looking at Tom Monaghan’s story, we see that leaders are people that think for themselves and rely on their ingenuity and unique skillet to work as leaders. Unfortunately, many supervisors today are simply followers of their administration or conform to the standards of the box they are placed in.

On the other hand, true leaders are unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, that can serve as inspiration for their peers who view them and think, “Why can’t I be that guy?”

No need for appearances

There’s also a big difference between supervisors and leaders, in that leaders don’t need to hide who they are, withhold information, or keep up appearances. We’ve all had supervisors who drop news on us at the last minute. Supervisors who think their employees can’t “handle the truth” or aren’t worthy of being given credit for their ideas in order to make themselves feel superior.

On the other hand, leaders don’t need to hide who they are and can provide open dialogue and communication with their peers. An effective leader is someone that cares more for their employees and peers than a supervisor who cares only for their appearance.

Why leaders are dangerous

If you can imagine an employee that has been working at a company for years, or perhaps only months, that has the power to influence employees with their experience, expertise, and charisma, you can imagine what it means to be a leader.

Leaders are people who command not just the attention but the following of those around them to be able to influence them in their decisions within the workplace, to the dismay of many supervisors. This is why union leaders are some of the most effective yet dangerous leaders the workplace can have, organizing walk-outs, protests, and the following of hundreds, if not thousands of employees!

The question is: why? What makes a leader so much more powerful vs a supervisor with no leadership skills, and how can a supervisor become a leader?

Communication skills towards a team

Have you ever heard the phrase of someone with no “tact?” If you have, it’s usually used to criticize someone that cannot put their words into use effectively and appear brutish and even insensitive to those they are speaking to. This is the exact opposite of a leader, who is not just a wordsmith but can find the right way of communicating ideas with everyone from upper management to fellow peers and even employees below them.

Why is communication so important for leaders? For starters, in today’s world, projects are the central way for teams to spread ideas, increase productivity, and increase revenue. Completing a project takes an effective leader to do. However, many companies still don’t understand just how important it is to utilize effective project management skills, such as effective leadership and communication, to complete ideas set to paper.

Becoming a leader and a supervisor

Supervisors aren’t all bad, and not all of them will be ineffective leaders. There are many ways that supervisors can incorporate the characteristics of an effective leader within their own work. Some of these methods include:

Asking questions

Leaders challenge the status quo, while supervisors accept it. If you find yourself in a supervisory position, take this opportunity to ask important questions to your employees and also your company. How can we make this better? What can we change? What are your ideas? Challenging the status quo and asking questions, including integrating your team into the discussion, is what makes a supervisor a leader.

Be yourself

Leaders are genuine, and don’t need titles, don’t need appearances, and only use their charisma and expertise to lead their followers. Who says you can’t have these skills if you also have a supervisor title? Don’t conform to the standards of your organization, but instead, stand out amongst them, and be the leader that inspires creativity, constantly comes up with new ideas and knows how to be your genuine self around others. This creates not only respect but also admiration from your employees.

Ask for help

No one wants to follow an incompetent supervisor. Leaders ask for help, even if they don’t have all the answers. Read up on ways to become an effective leader, as for help from those that are supervisors but are also respected, and seek ways to be a better version of yourself for your employees and yourself.

Stop depending on your title

If you’ve learned nothing, know that leaders don’t need a title, which is the main difference between a leader and a supervisor. If you find it difficult to maintain the respect of your employees, threatening to fire or write them up and using the title as power does nothing to improve your status in their eyes. Be a leader by depending on your communication skills, empathy, and expertise to garner the respect of others and not your name tag.

About the Author
Hi there, I'm James, founder of Melbado. I have over 20 years of experience as a leader and entrepreneur. Recently, I turned to leadership coaching and writing to pass on my knowledge to the next generation. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me via our contact page.


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