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What is an Executive?

What does it mean to be an executive and how does it differ from being a manager or a leader? By defining executive as a role, we can view leadership and management as occasional activities.

Executive Defined

Let's define an executive as a person who occupies a position of authority over people and other resources. The virtue of this definition is that it is compatible with saying that leadership and management aren't roles, that only executives occupy roles.

Now we are free to say that leadership and management are both occasional activities in which all employees can engage because they are processes rather than roles.

What Executives Do

It is fairly arbitrary how we slice this pie, but here are some of the core activities in which executives engage:

  • Represent: Be the public face of the organization to external stakeholders.
  • Accountability: Accept responsibility for the organization's overall performance.
  • Make strategic decisions: Decide on new markets and products; make acquisitions.
  • Manage: Allocate and monitor resources; facilitate collaboration, develop and engage people with the aim of getting the best return on investment from all resources.
  • Lead: Champion new directions, on a large scale with a new vision, or on a small scale with minor new ideas; lead by example.

It is not the point of this discussion to describe what executives do exhaustively. The point is to outline a way of defining the executive role so we can view leadership and management as role-free activities, ways of behaving.

To be consistent and clear, we should talk about executives but not about leaders and managers. Instead, we should talk about leading and managing. Like thinking creatively, making a decision or delegating, leading and managing are activities, not roles.

The Activity of Leading

Common usage envisages leading as getting something done through people, like a major project for example. But this way of thinking fails to differentiate clearly between leading and managing.

Also, if we want a fully generalizable concept of leading, we need to account for green leadership and that which is shown bottom-up. In these cases, the person leading is not in charge of those who follow and isn't necessarily involved in execution.

This means that leading must be limited to the successful promotion of a better way, thus influencing people to change direction but NOT helping them get there. That's what management is all about. This definition of leadership includes leading by example, which can also be shown without being in charge of those who follow and without getting involved in implementation.

By defining leadership as showing the way for others, it becomes an influence process, one that can be shown by all employees. It can also be shown sideways and up as well as by outsiders as it's not a role within any group.

The Activity of Managing

A major reason for not thinking of management as a role, by definition, is that we manage ourselves: our time, finances, careers, or anything else of importance to us.

Management can be defined as achieving goals in a way that yields the best return on all pertinent resources. When we manage our time, for example, we prioritize so we can get the best return on our scarce time.

Management works by making resource allocation decisions and by facilitating the activity of people through coaching, communication and empowering, using the full range of interpersonal skills. Managing people means being a catalyst or facilitator. To be effective, executives need to get the balance right between being an authority figure and being a catalyst, facilitator and coach. See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence.

The Beauty of Style-Neutral Definitions

Leadership and management as defined here are totally style-neutral. Thus we can completely reject the old fashioned notion that leaders must be inspiring while managers can only be transactional or mechanical.

People can lead in a quiet or low key manner; they don't need to be charismatic if the target audience doesn't need that kind of emotional arousal. In a highly technical context, for instance, they might be technical experts with only modest social skills.

Also, those who manage people can be nurturing, warm, good communicators, motivational and developmental. There is no implication that the process of management must be controlling and restricted to a task oriented emphasis.

Key Traits for Executives, Leading and Managing

Executives, because they occupy roles with heavy responsibilities, need to have a number of sterling personality traits. All role occupants need to be trusted, even lonely lighthouse keepers. The more that's at stake, the trustworthier the person needs to be.

To manage people effectively, an executive needs to have good interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. To lead, they need to have whatever influencing skills it takes to move their target audience to adopt their proposal. This is totally situational, however, because there is no general formula for influencing everyone.

What's different about this formulation is that all of the interpersonal skills we normally attribute to leadership can be shown in managing people. This approach rejects the age-old claim that only leaders are good with people.

In fact, what it takes to lead effectively is the most situational set of requirements of all three concepts because it can range from the need to be inspirational to achieve a major change in values to the need to be a technical expert to lead a small group of technicians.

Sometimes you need a vision to lead, other times a small-scale good idea will do. There are thus no universally applicable leadership traits or styles. Leadership style is really influencing style and that is situational.

Why Bother?

The advantage of saying that only executives occupy roles is that we can now view leadership and management as processes available to all, whether those using these processes are in charge of people or not, even informally.

We also gain a much clearer separation between leadership and management. Thinking of leaders and managers as role occupants rules out too much leading and managing that is role-independent.

To fully disperse leadership and management, we need to break the monopoly held by executives, or whatever you call those who are in positions of formal or informal authority over others.

See alsoExecutiives: Leaders or Managers?

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