Management Christopher SmithMay 19, 2021

Compared: the Role of Supervisor vs. the Role of Leader

Compared: the Role of Supervisor vs. the Role of Leader

The role of supervisor vs. the role of leader – how are they different?

While both may have similar and often overlapping responsibilities, there are fundamental differences that should be paid attention to.

When assigning and defining the role of a supervisory or leadership position, therefore, it is important to pay attention to these differences. When those distinctions are addressed early on, expectations will be clearer for all stakeholders and it will be much easier for supervisors – as well as their teams – to fulfill their obligations.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the role of supervisor vs. the role of leader, then look at a few points to address when defining either role.

Compared: the Role of Supervisor vs. the Role of Leader

What is the role of a supervisor?

A short answer would be “to supervise.” 

That answer, however, tells us little, and it doesn’t do business leaders much good. So it pays to dive a bit deeper.

Supervisors:

  • Manage teams of subordinates, such as employees and subcontractors
  • Liaising with upper management
  • Overseeing performance reviews and providing feedback
  • Resolving issues, such as interpersonal or performance issues, among team members
  • Providing guidance for employees who wish to grow within the organization
  • Assisting with other business tasks and functions, such as employee training programs or other business initiatives

In short, supervisors are managers who are tasked with performance improvement, administration, and maintaining a healthy and positive workplace.

While supervisory positions do entail a certain sense of leadership, the term “leader” has different connotations.

Leaders:

  • Focus on achieving goals, such as organizational goals or project goals
  • Encourage others to step beyond their boundaries and grow
  • Motivate and engage teams
  • Often foster innovation, growth, and change
  • Envision and drive progress 

The key differences between the two roles is that leaders focus on growth and change, while managers – or supervisors – tend to focus on optimization.

There are commonalities between the two, though. 

Both roles, for instance, are goal-oriented and both must motivate and engage teams to accomplish their aims. 

It is important to note that one role is not “better” than the other. Each has its place within the organization and they both contribute to an organization’s success. 

Points to Consider When Defining Leadership and Supervisory Roles

Any time a business unit is designed, redesigned, or restructured, it is important to define team roles carefully. Roles, after all, affect performance on many levels, from internal team communication to employee productivity to team synergy.

If, however, a unit is poorly designed and roles are not clearly defined, confusion, miscommunication, and errors can cause friction and inefficiency, or worse. 

One of the most crucial areas to address when defining the role of the team leader is the level of responsibility and the types of responsibilities – in other words, will this be a leadership or a supervisory role?

Here are a few points to consider when addressing this question:

The Business Unit

What is the business unit in question? 

Smaller business units that form baseline business functions should actually not be innovative. While innovation most definitely is essential in today’s business world, innovation has its time and place.

A team of customer service representatives, for instance, should focus on performance, rather than innovation.

On the other hand, a team of product developers shouldn’t be afraid to push the envelope. 

Or, to take this example even further, a cross-functional change management team shouldn’t be afraid to lead change – and, as a consequence, the change leader at the head of this team shouldn’t simply be a supervisor, but a transformational leader.

Unsurprisingly, the examples covered here should have different structures and managers. 

Supervisors should oversee units who focus on performing specific business functions, while leaders should oversee teams that are free to innovate and push boundaries.

Personalities

When assigning a new leadership or supervisor position, personalities matter.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, for instance. Nor should they have to be one if it doesn’t suit them. 

On the other hand, it would be counterproductive to assign an innovative visionary to a supervisory role that constrains their possibilities – in no small part because that would hamper the value they add to the organization.

Another aspect of this same question is team synergy

Personalities are one of the most important ingredients in successful teams, so it is important that the individuals are also operating under the right superior. Some people work better under managers, for instance, while others work better under transformational leaders.

The Organizational Structure

Another consideration is the organization’s operating model and structure.

Flat organizations, for instance, are often more conducive to certain types of leadership styles, such as laissez faire leadership. This style provides more autonomy and self-leadership to individual employees. 

Transformational or transactional leadership styles, on the other hand, tend to shift that balance of authority towards leadership and supervisory roles.

Conclusion: Assess the Circumstances Carefully Before Defining Roles

Every situation is unique and, as we have seen, there are a number of factors that come into play when it comes to creating a successful team – and when defining a leadership role.

Since teams, managers, and organizations are all part of the same overarching process, it is crucial to ensure that all of these variables are addressed carefully, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach to every business unit or team.

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