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What is a 'Leader'?

One of the most common themes for discussion on social media, at least in business networks, is the distinction between a ‘Boss’ or ‘Manager’ and a ‘Leader’. There are countless quotes, captions and illustrations like this one:

Most of these are pretty much on the money in terms of the behaviour they’re trying to promote, but the problem – for me – lies in creating a distinction between the two: Manager = Bad, Leader = Good.

In ‘On Becoming A Leader’ Warren Bennis provides a list of differences between the two, including:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.

  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.

  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.

  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.

  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.

  • The manager has their eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.

  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.

  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.

  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.

  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

There are some great behaviours and traits to aspire to in here – innovation, inspiring trust, focussing on people, doing the right thing… but why do they have to be mutually exclusive? Can a great leader not also have an eye on systems and structure and focus on doing things right?

Essentially it comes down to great leaders inspiring their team to follow them, rather than being compelled to do as they say. A boss can light a fire under somebody, while a leader lights a fire inside somebody! It’s not quite as simple as that though… Take this quote from French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

That’s lighting a fire inside the team, it’s great leadership, but is it enough? Is a longing for the sea, adventure and travel going to get the boat built?

Let’s try and move away from labels, away from ‘boss’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ – any thesaurus tells you they’re interchangeable in any case. Let’s focus instead on the behaviours – regardless of job title or roll. Be firm when needed (good leaders aren’t soft touches), and support your team, invest in them, train them, spend time with them, listen to them, help them develop, coach them, trust them.

I love the expression that “leadership is a partnership” – work with that in mind and you’ll be a great leader.

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