September 7, 2016
The word leadership is thrown around quite liberally, but it is less common to analyze what leadership means, to think about who leaders really are, and to consider how to expand the pool of leaders. People usually think only of the actions a leader takes, often forgetting that a real leader must have followers—people who willingly and eagerly work with them to achieve common goals.
Head over to Google, and you’ll get 772,000,000 results for “Leadership.”
It seems to be in danger of becoming a magic word, waved at problems to make them disappear without any understanding of how that works – or of the fact that real leadership brings its own set of challenges.
Staff and managers wind up with false expectations that lead to disillusionment when people who get hired into leadership roles often have little or no training on how to lead a team.
All too often, they’re managers – sometimes bad managers – who have been told they have to be leaders, without being told how or why. That means that even though they might have good intentions, they’re still going to be bad news for an organization.
So how do you tell the difference between a leader and a manager? And what’s the advantage of real leadership?
Leaders Don’t Organize, They Delegate
Managers tell people what to do, while leaders tell their people where to go. Another way of thinking about this is to say that while management is about structure and control, leadership is about people and direction. In the words of Admiral Grace Hopper, ‘you manage things; you lead people.’
So, if you have a micromanaging boss who watches your every move and tells you exactly how to do each step of the task, you definitely don’t have a leader.
Rather than focus on their team’s weaknesses and try to prevent them from doing the wrong thing, the leaders will focus on strengths and inspire better actions.
Leaders Don’t Instruct, They Communicate
A manager will let you know what you’re supposed to do, and when you’re supposed to do it by. Sensible, achievable instructions with clear, stable goals are one of the marks of a good manager; if the rules change every five minutes, you don’t have a free-spirited leader, you have a vacillating nightmare. You should know how your work relates to getting the whole project done well and on time.
But leaders are different than managers: where a manager would tell you which tasks to accomplish and when, a leader will communicate with you in both directions. You might find yourself being asked what you think you should be doing.
You might find yourself doing it too – leaders care more about whether an idea is good than who came up with it and they’re often happy to assume you know your own job better than them. Their job isn’t to control the team and get promoted: they could care less about performance reviews if their vision is being fulfilled.
With a leader you’re more likely to find yourself challenged to define the project itself rather than be told about your place within it. It’s this dynamism that makes leadership figures so risky, charismatic and disruptive.
Leaders Don’t Iterate, They Create
Managers make decisions by looking at the book of rules. What did we do last time? Faced with a decision that’s unprecedented, where there was no last time, managers often struggle.
By contrast leaders struggle exactly because they always act as if there never was a last time. A great example of this in action is Elon Musk. Managers refer to the manual. As Musk says, “Any product that needs a manual to work is broken.”
So, What Makes a Leader?
Training people for leadership roles often involves going against years of organization training, dispelling shibboleths and rethinking boundaries. It’s something not everyone is suited for, and not every team in an organization needs to be a disruptive, ultra-creative group that turns the world upside down.
We also need to learn that the trappings of leadership, from the Polo necks to the cryptic pronunciations on disruption, aren’t its essence, any more than filling your open plan office with bean bags will turn you into a hip Silicon Valley startup.
The mark of a real leader is that they’re totally egotistical when it comes to the big vision, and totally egoless about the details of how to get there. That’s something you can train, for sure, but can you create that drive and vision from scratch? Probably not – and you probably don’t need to.
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