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Leading By Example? How Odd!

When you groom executive talent, are you developing leaders or managers? Which does your organization most need to be successful? How do you differentiate between leadership and management? What is the relationship between either leadership or management and prosperity for your organization?

To get the most out of your executives it is vital to have clear answers to such questions. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of confusion about the meaning of leadership as the following myths suggest:

Leadership Myths

1.    Leaders are more inspiring, lively and persuasive than managers.
2.    Leadership refers to a relationship between leaders and followers.
3.    Leadership has to do with improving performance.
4.    Leaders are good at coaching and empowering people.
5.    Leadership is a set of skills that can be developed.
6.    An effective senior executive is almost certainly a good leader.
7.    Effective leaders must have a high level of emotional intelligence.

Myth 1 - Leaders are more inspiring than managers

Everyone can think of a few leaders who are not larger-than-life or particularly inspiring. We need to reject this personality approach to differentiating leaders from managers in favour of a purely functional distinction: Leadership serves the function of generating new directions, management the function of executing existing directions efficiently. That’s it! The means of influencing people are completely open. You can lead by example, lively persuasion, a bold vision or quiet conviction. Both leaders and managers can be lively or quiet.

An inspiring leader influences us to change direction. An equally inspiring manager influences us to improve our performance on an existing direction or task. If your organization competes on the basis of innovation in volatile markets, you need a good deal of leadership. If your strategy requires efficient execution, low costs, high quality or reliable service, you need excellent management.

Others have also said that leaders and managers serve different functions but they have then muddied the waters with the personality angle by saying that leaders inspire us to change while managers organize and control us to perform. This is to confuse ends and means. Leaders and managers have different ends but they can use the same or different means to influence us as the situation requires.

Myth 2 - Leadership is a relationship between leaders and followers

This idea presupposes that leadership is necessarily a formal, top-down relationship within a team. But if leadership is simply the function of generating new directions then it can be shown up, down and across. Think of the last time you influenced your colleagues. Leadership can also come from outside the organization. Leaders like Winston Churchill show leadership to people they do not even know let alone have a relationship with.

You might take your lead from an industry guru or market leader where, again, there is no relationship – at least not a formal managerial one. Conversely, managers do have a formal relationship with a team. Leadership is an informal, episodic action, not a person or role. Upwards leadership should not be discounted as mere ‘informal influence’ or suggestion box material for the ‘real’ leaders to decide upon. Influencing upwards is genuine leadership. When you influence your boss to change the organization’s direction, you show real leadership.

Myth 3 - Leadership has to do with improving performance

It is the function of management to improve performance. Leadership is strictly about generating new directions. High level performance means excellent execution and it depends upon making the best use of all resources at the manager’s disposal. Management is like investment in the sense that you want to get the best return out of all of your resources.

Managers can be just as inspiring and transformational as leaders. They just have a different focus – to execute existing directions efficiently. Sales Directors are generally inspiring and seen as stereotypical leaders for this reason, but if their goal is to improve sales performance rather than to carve out new directions then they are serving a managerial function, not showing leadership. Management is often seen as controlling, but modern managers can excel at coaching and empowering staff. Controlling and empowering are just two different means of facilitating desired output. Neither technique is an essential element of management.

Myth 4 - Leaders are good at coaching and empowering people

If leadership can be directed upwards or sideways, it cannot necessarily involve coaching and empowerment. When was the last time you empowered your boss? Conversely, managers do need to coach and empower their teams. Leadership has always been associated with providing direction. We often hear that leaders coach and empower people to find their own direction but this is really a managerial tactic where management is conceived as facilitative.

The fact is that leadership generates new directions and has nothing to do with how you manage your team. Indeed, you could be showing leadership sideways while having no one reporting to you at all. Fostering leadership in others requires good managerial skills, not a display of leadership. The two functions, leadership and management, are often confused simply because we associate both with a particular person in charge of a group. This mistake is based on our desire to look to a specific person for direction much as we once looked to our fathers.

Myth 5 - Leadership is a set of skills that can be developed

Leaders generate new directions either through personal creativity or by seizing upon the creative ideas of others. Leadership initiatives challenge the status quo, champion new ideas and risk group rejection by advocating change. Leaders have the courage of their convictions, in short a spirit of adventure. This set of characteristics is quite close to what it takes to be creative and it is something like youthful rebelliousness – traits you were born with or acquired early in life, not something you learned in a classroom.

Management is, however, (like seamanship, for example) a set of skills you can develop. As with creativity, leadership can only be fostered by designing a supportive culture. It is not a set of skills to be acquired. The means of showing leadership,  influencing skills, can indeed be developed but no particular style of influencing is any part of the very meaning of leadership.

This is the key point. The essence of leadership is simply to generate new directions. How you get people on board, whether by example, quiet conviction or ecstatic pronouncements of your vision is the means rather than the purpose of leadership. The contention here is that it makes much more sense to conceptualize leadership (and management) simply in terms of their respective purposes or functions. Your drive to lead in the first instance can be stimulated or facilitated by the right environment but not learned in a classroom.

Myth 6 – An effective senior executive is a good leader

Much of what executives do is good management, not necessarily leadership. When a business competes on cost, quality or service rather than innovation, the requirement is for efficient execution – a managerial emphasis. In his recent book Good to Great, Jim Collins explains how ‘level 5 leaders’ draw ideas for new strategic directions out of others rather than advocating their own ideas. This is a managerial, facilitative orientation, not leadership. ‘Level 5 leaders’ are actually managers on this view.

Collins shows how excellent facilitative management at the top is the key to transforming good organizations into great ones. Great managers cultivate leadership in others throughout their organizations. Management has been given a bad name – mainly to elevate the status of leadership by contrast. It is time to redress this imbalance and stop calling people leaders simply because they occupy a managerial role.

When it is said that organizations are ‘under led’ and ‘over managed’, the reference is to a controlling style of management, not to the essence of management which is to be a facilitator who gets things done through others in a way that makes best use of their talent.

Myth 7 - Leaders need a high level of emotional intelligence

Rounded senior executives do need to have a solid degree of emotional intelligence because they have so much responsibility and such a diverse range of stakeholders to manage. As with creativity, leadership can be displayed by employees at any level, including senior executives. People who exhibit leadership can sometimes be obnoxious, off-the-wall and insensitive – just like creative people. Some may have emotional intelligence but it is not a necessary condition to show leadership.

An effective leader is simply one who is successful in influencing an organization to adopt a new direction. Leadership is not a responsibility. It is an act, like creativity, and the actor may or may not be very emotionally intelligent. It is only the holding of responsibilities that requires emotional intelligence. Managers and executives, therefore, do need to be emotionally intelligent. Daniel Goleman stated that emotional intelligence is essentially maturity. Leadership stems from the rebelliousness of youth (or occasionally that of older employees) – the opposite of maturity.

Ironically, therefore, efforts to cultivate emotional intelligence at all levels in an organization could foster a culture of conservative conformity, thereby stifling leadership. Emotionally intelligent senior executives do not have an excessive personal stake in being the initiator of all new, good ideas, scoring all the goals. They are emotionally strong enough to both foster and tolerate challenges from below, bottom-up leadership in effect. Such executives are good at coaching to stimulate latent leadership in otherwise deferential followers.  But coaching is a managerial tactic, not a form of leadership.

Why is there so much confusion over the nature of leadership?

It is because we love to admire larger-than-life personalities. We look up to them and want their approval – much as we once did our fathers. We see leaders as heroes and managers as controlling bad guys, just as we distinguish good from bad fathers. Hence we want to associate leadership with having a larger-than-life personality, someone we hope will help us realize our dreams. But this fantasy runs headlong into the cold, hard fact that some leaders are not larger-than-life but rather lead through quiet conviction.

Fascination with heroic leaders says more about us than it does about what it actually means to lead. We can only become clear about the true nature of leadership when we are able to set aside our need to worship heroes and examine what leadership is all about dispassionately.

Leadership has always had something to do with the exercise of a form of power to set direction for a group. Historically, we are shifting from power based on brute force through the force of personality to the power of knowledge. In an increasingly knowledge driven economy those who can innovate and create new directions are the leaders of tomorrow. This type of power is not associated with position. Rather, it is an ephemeral, very fast shifting capability and drive.

Managerial power is irrevocably associated with positional authority while leadership has become totally independent of position. A good deal of emotional intelligence is required to acknowledge this shift of power.

Practical Next Steps

  • Begin by ridding your organization of the myths of leadership and reinstate the role of management as an equal partner in generating organizational prosperity.
  • Determine what your organization most needs — leadership or management.
  • Determine how better leadership or management will impact your bottom line and how it is aligned to your particular strategy.
  • If better management is needed, institute a development process to improve managerial skills.
  • If you need more leadership, develop a culture that encourages everyone to show some leadership occasionally. Such a culture will stimulate wider creativity, innovation, risk taking and learning from mistakes. It should also minimize fear of challenging upwards.
  • Encourage employees to show bottom-up leadership and coach executives to adjust to being challenged more directly.
  • Re-think career management and reward systems to ensure that it is possible for innovative, entrepreneurial employees to be recognized and rewarded as leaders without having to manage people.

For new thinking on this subject, see Leadership and Management Reinvented

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