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Leadership: NOT a Role

A hotly debated issue: some are adamant that leadership isn't a role, but the feeling that it must be persists. What's the answer?

This matters because it shapes how we think about leadership and management. It's because we view both as roles that we have no way of separating them except in terms of style. Unfortunately, leadership always gets the "good guy" role while management is saddled with the "bad guy" role.

One way around this problem is to say that leadership is never a role, but a type of influence while only management can be a role. If we define management in style-neutral terms as "achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources" then we can say that management takes care of getting everything done through people without implying anything about style, such as being controlling.

But first, let's be precise about how leadership could be a role or not.

Circles for Clarification

We can use circles to clarify the relationship between leadership and roles but let's start with an analogy. Suppose we take being creative versus practical and represent them with the following circles:

Leadership as roleA = people who are creative but not practical

B = people who are both creative and practical

C = people who are practical but not creative

So, some people are creative, some are practical and some are both.

 The Relationship Between Leadership and Influence

Influence and leadershipBecause the influence circle is larger, we can see that there are kinds of influence that don't count as leadership, i.e. coercion and TV ads. But there is no leadership that isn't influence because every instance of leadership is also within the influence circle. Thus, if you have genuinely showed leadership to a group of people, this means that you must have influenced them to think or act differently.

In addition, you can attempt to influence people to change direction, but if they refuse, then this is only attempted leadership. The idea that leadership doesn't occur without followers expresses the same idea: that leadership is an impact on people, a form of influence, not an input.

Any statement of the form X is Y, such as "Whales are mammals" or "Snow is white" can be represented by a small circle inside a large one. In the case of snow being white, the circle of all white things in the world is bigger than the snow circle, which is contained within the circle of all white things. Thus there are a lot of white things that aren't snow, i.e. golf balls, but there's no snow that isn't white.

This may seem obvious but some people do object that "leadership is influence" implies that types of influence like TV ads must count as leadership, clearly an absurd outcome. But representing leadership as a smaller circle within the larger circle of influence demonstrates graphically that the statement "leadership is influence" carries no such implication.

Leadership and Roles

Leaders vs rolesThe conventional view of leadership would be represented as follows:

This diagram shows that leadership is a role but that not all roles entail leadership, so being an executive in a role with formal authority over people doesn't make you a leader (unless you are also within the leadership circle). When most people claim that leadership is not a role, it is this relationship between leadership and roles that they have in mind. They want to argue that not all executive role occupants are leaders, that there is more to leading than being in the associated role.

However, it is also evident in this diagram that you can't be a leader without being in a leadership role, whether a formal or informal role. This is clear from the fact that we talk about a leader's responsibilities. All talk about integrity and trust implies that we are referring to someone in a responsible role. Crucially, this means that there can be no leadership outside of a leadership role.

However, suppose we disagree with this claim and argue that leadership is possible outside of roles. If so, then we need to diagram the relationship the same way we did for creative and practical thinking:

Leadership: not a roleIn this diagram, we can see that it is possible to show leadership without being in a leadership role (left portion of the diagram) and to be in a role without being a leader (right

portion). Finally, people in roles can show leadership (middle portion).

Here are some examples of role-independent leadership:

Green leadership – a person promotes a new way of conserving energy in one country and it is adopted in far-flung communities around the globe of which the leader is not a member. Here, leadership is shown at a distance and is not a role within any of the follower groups.

You show leadership to your colleagues in a meeting by advocating a course of action (if they adopt it) even though you are neither their formal nor informal leader.

Jack Welch's actions at GE such as demanding all business units be number one or two in their market had a leadership impact on other companies where he had no leadership role.

Front-line employees show leadership bottom-up when they convince management to adopt a new product or improve a process.

Martin Luther King had a leadership impact on several levels of government and the general public through his inspiring speeches, including many people he never met. Hence he was not in a leadership role with respect to many who would count themselves among his followers.

Implications of Role-Independent Leadership

  • If leadership isn't a role, then it must be an act, a way of behaving; more precisely, like all influence, it is an impact on people who are influenced – followers
  • Leadership can only influence, not make decisions
  • All decisions, even strategic ones, are management actions
  • Leadership can come from outside the organization as well as bottom-up
  • Management can use whatever style works to get the best out of people
  • There is no such thing as leadership style, just management style
  • Leadership style becomes influencing style
  • Leadership is shown by example or by advocating a better way
  • Employees with no positional leadership potential can still have a one-off leadership impact
  • Management can foster innovation by encouraging and supporting people to think creatively. It isn't restricted to execution. However, when managers explicitly advocate a new product, strategy or process, then they're wearing a leadership hat.

How can an organization be shown leadership from multiple directions, you ask? While an organization may be able to DO only one thing at a time, its choice of direction can be influenced by multiple small leadership impacts. Choosing a direction is a decision, a management action.

An Example

An executive, let's call him John, has many roles. In addition to being an executive, he's a husband, father, boy scout leader and school board chairman, but he also engages in a wide range of role-independent activities: he golfs a lot during the summer, he solves problems creatively at work and he both sets a good example on the job and occasionally promotes new ideas. His role as an executive carries multiple responsibilities, which in turn, require multiple stakeholders to place their trust in him. But leadership, like playing golf or thinking creatively, is only an occasional activity, not a role. Yes, we may expect him to show leadership and to think creatively when required, but these are actions he occasionally takes, not roles. When we call John "a leader" we should be meaning that he shows leadership more often than others, not that he is a leader because he occupies an executive role.


The most common objection to viewing leadership as a role is really just making the obvious point that some role occupants aren't leaders, but this is compatible with hanging onto the basic feeling that leadership is nonetheless restricted to people in executive roles. This is the idea that I am challenging here. My evidence is that there are many instances of leadership outside of any role, that it can be a one-off impact. This claim requires a wholesale upgrade for management to take over the role-based responsibilities we have attributed to leadership.

So What? 

Well, if you believe that it's possible to show leadership bottom-up, then we need to understand what that means if it isn't a role. Thinking it through to its logical conclusion, however, leads to a whole new perspective on what leadership means and how it works. The end result is that leadership is always an act (an impact to be precise) never a role and this is a very counter-intuitive, counter-cultural conclusion.

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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