Apples and oranges have different properties but managers and leaders have different functions. So, it's not about what it takes to be a leader but how the function works.
Virtually all our efforts to differentiate leadership from management focus on how managers differ from leaders. We think of them as objects: types of people. We see this issue as being like differentiating apples from oranges, so we focus on qualities one has that the other lacks.
Why Leaders and Managers Aren't Types of People
There are so many ways to lead, so many styles that work, it's impossible to state what it takes to be a leader universally. In highly technical contexts a quiet, even abrasive, technical wizard can lead team members without the usual sterling personality traits.
Dictators, criminals and terrorists also have willing followers despite not being the sorts of leaders that you and I might follow. Even courage isn't a universal leadership trait if your followers are highly receptive to your message.
While apples and oranges come in different varieties, we can list some general properties that universally differentiate them. This is impossible with leaders and managers because there are just too many varieties that have too little in common.
A Functional Approach
Some objects are defined by their function: think of a hammer or a saw. One serves the function of pounding nails into wood while the other cuts it in half.
Yes, hammers and saws also have different physical properties but their form is driven by their function. The required weight of a hammer is totally determined by the size of the nail. So, again the defining factor is the purpose or function it needs to serve.
We also have functional processes: think of cooking, distilling, sewing or selling. Functional objects have a corresponding functional process: we use hammers in the process of attaching one piece of wood to another, for instance.
The advantage of thinking of leadership and management in functional terms is that it becomes easier to see how anyone can engage in them. Like hammers and saws, leadership and management are tools that anyone can apply.
Take selling for example. Everybody can sell something, regardless of lacking a sales personality. A person with zero selling skills can sell a high demand item on e-bay despite not being able to sell life insurance to misers. So, there are no universal traits required to sell things. All trait requirements are situational.
The Function of Management
Management serves the function of achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all available resources. It's like investment, except that managers have more resources to invest than just money. But the purpose is the same: to get the best return on resources.
Management so defined is a functional process or tool. We use it to manage our time and other personal resources by setting priorities. We manage ourselves well when we achieve our goals in the most efficient possible manner. A key point here is that management viewed as a functional process is not limited to people in organizational roles. We can all manage something, even if only our own personal time.
Another huge advantage of this definition is that nothing is implied about personal style. Managers of people are free to use whatever style works to get the most out of them. They can be empowering, motivational, nurturing and good at fostering creative thinking. All the stale old clichés about managers being controlling or bureaucratic go out the window as totally groundless biases.
The Function of Leadership
Leadership serves the function of influencing people to think or act differently. It shows the way for others either by example or by promoting a better way. The beauty of this person-independent definition of leadership is that it applies to groups like Google or Amazon having a leadership impact on their competitors. It's not just about individuals.
Google and other companies lead by example. That's why we lap up business stories about highly successful companies. Crucially, Google is not in charge of those who follow.
This is true of green leaders as well. A green leader in Norway promoting solar power could have a leadership impact on a community in Australia without either side even knowing each other.
The fact that leadership is possible as a one-off act with no reporting relationship is a massive advantage because it allows us to explain how a front-line employee with no positional leadership potential can show leadership bottom-up by successfully influencing management to adopt a new product idea.
More generally, if leadership is really just a functional process or tool, then everyone can show some leadership in some contexts just as surely as everyone can sell something, even if only a highly desirable product at a low price on e-bay.
Our Fixation on the Leader-as-Person
Naturally, if you were hiring b2b sales agents for a fortune 100 company, you wouldn't be impressed by candidates who said they sold some stuff on e-bay. But, so what? That's just a different context.
OK, so you want to know what it takes to lead a big company as well. You're not interested in how front-line employees can have a low-level leadership impact on their immediate colleagues.
Fine, but when most people talk about what it takes to be a leader, they talk as if CEO-level leadership is all there is. They generalize about leadership traits as if they applied not only to CEOs but to all possible contexts. This fixation on larger-than-life leaders says more about us and our needs than it does about leadership. (See my article, The Ideal Leader for an attack on this fixation).
Think what it means to serve a function. Going back in time, even to our pre-human ancestors, there have been hierarchies in the animal kingdom. In primitive contexts, it's arguable that it made sense to associate leadership with the person at the top of the hierarchy. But here's the big question: Is this concept of leadership still viable in the 21st century or should we let it become extinct?
Hierarchical leadership must have served a function in all primitive groups: minimizing conflict within them if nothing else. It was all about the most powerful individual dominating and controlling everyone in the group.
OK, so what's different today? Well, the big difference, especially in knowledge-based organizations, is that power is increasingly gravitating to knowledge and that is becoming ever more widely dispersed, no longer monopolized by the individual at the top. But if leadership is based on power, then we have to wonder who is leading whom.
It is recognized that CEOs no longer have all the answers but rather than face the reality that they can no longer do all the leading, we perversely want to re-define leadership so that it means being an enabler or catalyst rather than a provider of direction.
In a world of rapid change and growing complexity, a world where content is increasingly king, where the "creative class" rules and where the wisdom of crowds outshines individuals, we need to reinvent leadership.
It's time to abandon the comforting, self-serving myth that a leader is a special person with superhuman traits and recognize that ALL employees can lead, even if only on a small scale.
Leadership and management need to be reconfigured as functional processes or tools that everyone can use. This is real democracy. Conventional leadership is essentially autocratic because it concentrates all the power in the hands of one individual.
What Does it Take to be a CEO?
Even if you buy the need to reinvent leadership, we're still left with the question of what it takes to be a CEO, country president or front-line team leader.
The main point I want to make here is that anyone in a position of authority is a manager first and foremost. Both management and leadership are functional processes but leadership is never a role. Thus we need to shift our focus to what management skills it takes to run a large company.
Leadership is an occasional act, an influence process. CEOs only show leadership occasionally, specifically when they influence people to think or act differently.
Our leadership discussions then need to focus on what influencing skills a CEO needs. Even this is situational, however, because it takes massively different things to move different audiences. But this is another topic.
The aim of this discussion is to move the conversation away from the leader-as-type-of-person and toward a functional slant. It's the only way to differentiate leadership from management effectively.