Is Leadership the Same as Supervision?

In our world of business, many people are appointed as leaders in an effort to supervise those under them. However, how much does supervision really relate to leadership?

Another good question to ask is whether or not supervision and leadership are even the same thing. To find the answer to this, we will look at what exactly supervision is defined as.

What Is Supervision?

Essentially, supervision is the act of watching over the work of another person who lacks full knowledge of what they are doing, or the concept at hand. This does not mean they control the other person, but they simply guide them in work or in a personal context.

There are many forms of supervision around the world, including:
  • Psychology and Psychotherapy - Supervision in this context refers to how therapists are expected to counsel another therapist for their mutual benefit, or to discuss their work. This is done to improve their own skills in the profession.
  • Childcare - In this case, it means to watch over the children and is used in the context of an adult watching children to ensure they are safe and well-behaved.

So, looking at these definitions, what can we assess about the nature of supervision? Well, clearly it is someone being taught and watched over by another who has more experience at hand in that particular subject or task.

As a result, many people view supervision as nothing close to leadership but more akin to being a teacher.

However, with that being said, could it then be construed that leaders also teach? In fact, isn't leading by example a form of teaching others how to act by acting that way yourself?

Granted, a leader may not sit down and teach those under them exactly how to do things, but they will teach some individuals how to do things, and those, in turn, will then teach others under them. Therefore, is it correct to say that a leader is someone who supervises by extension?

This lesson will assess the differences between supervision and leadership, while at the same time showing how they are intertwined at times.

How should a leader be as a supervisor and are the qualities between leaders and supervisors the same?

If someone supervises, does that mean they can lead? Are the two modes of being in charge completely different?

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Leadership and Supervision course?
Is it true that a leader leads while a manager supervises?

One Requires the Other

It is logical to say that between supervision and leadership, one needs the other, but the other does not always need the first one. Confused yet? Here is what we mean.

To supervise someone properly, you first need to be able to lead them and have them understand your way of doing things. This may take charisma and several other leadership qualities, but they have to understand that you are the one in charge and that they are the ones who will follow what you do and what you teach.

Therefore, it is possible to say that supervision needs leadership. If you cannot have the confidence and charisma of a leader when you supervise someone, then you are going to have a very difficult time supervising them.

Now, in term of a leader, do you need to be able to supervise people? No, you do not. As a leader you can supervise people, but you don't need the skills of supervision to lead people. You do not have to stand over them and show them how to do something, you lead by example and show them how to do things by the way you live your life and by the message that you preach.

We highlighted Winston Churchill as one of the greatest leaders in history. It was he who helped Britain battle the Nazi onslaught and it was he who inspired the people of Britain to remain courageous during the bombing of London by the Nazis. Clearly, he was a great leader in that respect, and without him, Britain may have lost the war.

Now, did Churchill go to every soldier and supervise them shooting their guns or flying their aircraft? Did he go on every boat and show everyone how to be courageous?

The answer is no, he did not. He didn't have to because he knew he was the leader, not the supervisor or drill sergeant. He did not need to show them how to do these things, he did not need to show them how to lead the country, he only needed to inspire them to battle the Nazi threat.

He left it to those under him--far under him--to supervise the troops and show them how to fight against the Germans. Were they leaders? Yes, many of them were, but did they need to know how to supervise to be leaders? No, they did not. If you can lead, you can supervise someone by example or by inspiration. If you can't supervise, you can still lead.

The two are the same, yet different in many regards. To illustrate this, let's look at the differences between managers and leaders.

There is an adage that says those who cannot do, teach. Well, the same can be applied to leadership, and those who cannot lead, manage.

What do we mean by this? Well, when someone lacks the skills to lead someone by example or to inspire those around them, they are often called managers. These managers are placed in a position of leadership, but neither have they earned it, nor do they know how to lead in it.

That is not to say that there are not any managers who are also leaders, because there are. However, many managers lack the skills of leadership and use their power as managers to benefit themselves, without understanding the dynamics of a leader. In 1989, Warren Bennis drew up 12 distinctions between leaders and managers, and they fit pretty well into what we are talking about here.
    • Managers administer, leaders innovate.
    • Managers ask how and when, leaders ask what and why?
    • Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people.
    • Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.
    • Managers maintain, leaders develop.
    • Managers rely on control, leaders inspire trust.
    • Managers have a short-term perspective, leaders have a longer-term perspective.
    • Managers accept the status-quo, leaders challenge the status-quo.
    • Managers have an eye on the bottom line, leaders have an eye on the horizon.
    • Managers imitate, leaders originate.
    • Managers emulate the classic good soldier, leaders are their own person.
    • Managers copy, leaders show originality.
When we looked at the examples of great leaders in history, there were some who came from privileged families, but all of them, except Alexander the Great, were not born into a leadership role. They had to rise through the ranks to become leaders.

To understand the difference between those who supervise and those who lead, we can look at those who are born into leadership roles and those who work to get into leadership roles.

More often than not, and looking at the majority of Roman Emperors confirms this, being born into a leadership role is like being given a job as a manager. it does not always mean that the person leading is a leader.

However, those who work to climb the ranks and hone their leadership skills are leaders. They have learned from their mistakes, and from their faults, to become who they are.

Of course, many will say that managers also climb up the ranks to get where they are. However, the difference is that leaders rise through the ranks of the military or society because of their leadership abilities, managers rise up through the ranks, not because of their leadership qualities, but because of their ability to do their jobs well. In business, someone who can balance an account sheet properly can rise up through the ranks to a leadership position, even without having leadership qualities.

And the Short Answer is?

This was a lot to go through to determine the differences between supervision and leadership. So, we will summarize it quickly, here. Supervisors are those who may not be able to lead, but use leadership tools to teach others how to do their job. Leaders are those who have honed their talents and qualitites over time, to inspire others, not to teach, but to follow their lead and their decisions.