Master’s in Leadership vs. MBA: What’s the Difference?

Industry Advice Business Leadership

A master’s in leadership and a master’s in business administration (MBA) are two valuable graduate degrees that share some similarities—but are also quite different. How do you know which one is right for you? Here’s a closer look at each program, including its focus, concentrations, and future career and salary possibilities.

What’s a Master’s Degree in Leadership?

A Master of Science in Leadership is a graduate degree for professionals who would like to create change and impact others, says Mary Ludden, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. Students who enroll in an MS in Leadership program take about 1.5 to two years to complete the degree, and they come from a variety of backgrounds, she adds. While some are already in leadership positions within their organizations, others are influencers or individual contributors who may not yet lead a team.

“These students are either on the cusp of being promoted into a manager role and they want to have the toolkit to better deliver leadership attributes to their team, or they are current leaders who are looking to mature their own leadership skills and identify ways to become even more effective,” she says. “We see a broad spectrum of emerging leaders, existing leaders, or leaders who have great experience who are returning back to get their degree because they want to have a really good focus area and understanding of leadership techniques.”

Northeastern’s graduate leadership degree offers seven core concentrations, including human resources management, organizational communication, and project management, though students aren’t limited to careers in those fields. The program—which is offered in part-time, full-time, online, and on-campus—includes a capstone project in which students develop an action-based initiative to practice their understanding of classroom concepts in a real-world environment.

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What’s an MBA? 

A Master of Business Administration degree attracts business professionals who are interested in acquiring expansive knowledge on a variety of business topics, including finance, accounting, management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. For these professionals, the MBA is a terminal degree. This degree takes an average of two to three years to complete for full-time students. At some schools, like Northeastern, part-time students have up to seven years to earn their degree.

MBA students explore scientific and experimental studies of effective management practices, trends, and outcomes; they learn best practices surrounding finance and accounting functions; investigate the structure of the corporate supply chain from both a local and global perspective; and learn the foundational principles of entrepreneurship and marketing.

“If you want broad exposure to business challenges and business experience, this is the pathway to follow,” Ludden says.

Students who enroll in Northeastern’s MBA program may choose from more than 10 concentrations, which include data science, cybersecurity, supply chain management, international business, technological innovation, and healthcare management. Students may also choose whether to complete the degree online, part-time, or full time.

What Can You Do with a Master’s Degree in Leadership?

The career possibilities with a master’s degree in leadership vary, Ludden says. “We see graduates moving into C-suite jobs and other positions that give them more relevance and visibility within their organization,” she says.

Because an MS in Leadership is applicable to professionals in nearly every industry, there are a variety of job titles you may encounter, including:

1. Chief Executive Officer

Median Pay: $104,700

The most common role for those with a master’s degree in leadership is Chief Executive Officer (CEO). This highly sought-after position coordinates the operations of an organization to meet and exceed business growth and performance goals. CEOs are needed in every industry, and the job outlook for this career is projected to grow substantially.

2. Corporate Trainer

Median Pay: $108,250

These in-demand roles are projected to grow at a pace of 10 percent or more during the next 10 years, which is higher than the average growth rate across all occupations and good news for job seekers. These professionals plan, direct, and coordinate programs to enhance the knowledge and skills of an organization’s employees.

3. Human Resources Manager

Median Pay: $110,120

Human resources and workplace culture positions are popular niches for those with advanced leadership degrees. Responsibilities of this role include the planning and oversight of recruiting, hiring, and employee management, including benefit plans, workplace disputes, and regulatory compliance.

4. Health Services Manager

Median Pay: $90,350

Also referred to as “healthcare executives” or “healthcare administrators,” this is the career path for those with a passion for medicine and health services. Professionals in this role are tasked with overseeing physicians and facilities as well as conforming to laws and regulations to provide patients with the best care possible.

5. School Principal

Median Pay: $94,390

Individuals who can combine their leadership skills, teaching experience, and passion for shaping the lives of youths make for ideal education administrators and school principals. As a principal, you’ll coordinate curriculums, oversee daily school activities, manage teachers and other staff, and provide a safe environment for young learners. These roles typically require a master’s degree as well as a few years of teaching experience.

What Can You Do with an MBA? 

The MBA is one of the most sought-after graduate degrees, and for good reason: It’s versatile and prepares professionals for a variety of roles in business management and analysis. Here’s a look at a few roles that require (or strongly prefer) an MBA degree.

1. Chief Financial Officer

Median Pay: $125,080

CFOs are responsible for the financial health of the organization. They produce financial reports, direct investment activities, and develop strategies for the long-term goals of the organization.

2. Hospital Administrator

Median Pay: $98,350

Hospital administrators plan, direct, and coordinate medical and health services. These professionals are responsible for improving the efficiency and quality in delivering healthcare services; developing departmental goals and objectives; and ensuring that the facility is up to date on and compliant with laws and regulations.

3. Marketing Manager

Median Pay: $129,380

 Marketing managers plan programs to generate interest in products or services, and work with department heads or staff to discuss budgets and contracts, marketing plans, and the selection of advertising media. Marketing managers also negotiate advertising contracts and develop pricing strategies for products or services marketed to target customers.

4. Operations Manager

Median Pay: $103,650 

Operations managers plan, direct, or coordinate the operations of public or private sector organizations. They are responsible for formulating policies, managing daily operations, and planning the use of materials and human resources.

5. Sales Director

Median Pay: $121,060

Sales directors set goals, analyze data, and develop training programs or organizations’ sales representatives. They’re also responsible for directing the distribution of goods and services by assigning sales territories, advising their team on how to improve performance, and developing plans to acquire new customers or clients.

MS in Leadership vs MBA: Which is Right for You?

Both degrees help professionals develop and sharpen their management, communication, interpersonal, and strategic thinking skills. But Ludden says that it’s up to the individual to determine whether the Master of Science in Leadership or MBA program best suits their interests, career goals, and aspirations.

The MS in Leadership will prepare you for a leadership position in any industry, whereas an MBA will help you develop business acumen to achieve specific business-related goals. Both can help you advance your career significantly, she says. To decide which degree is right for you, Ludden’s advice is straightforward:

“I encourage potential students to think about what they’re passionate about and what they really want to do,” she says. “The great thing is that both are offered at Northeastern, which holds high equity in the recruiting field. Think about what you want to do and where you see yourself in five years, then wrap your education around it to help enable that goal.”

To learn more: Explore Northeastern’s leadership and business degree and certificate programs or connect with our team to receive personalized advice.  

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