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What Is Leadership?

Throughout our careers, many of us aspire to be in leadership positions in one way or another. Beyond a title, though, what does leadership truly mean?
Gareth Barr
Contributing CIO

What is the difference between being a leader and a manager?  

I’ve asked this question of many aspiring leaders over the course of my career, partly to explore a candidate’s way of approaching leadership, and what they think makes a good leader or manager, but also because I have yet to find a definitive answer.

I’ve received a fascinating range of answers:

  • Seniority, with the top of the firm being leaders, and the mid-to-lower-levels being managers
  • Fame, e.g. Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Malala Yousafzai
  • An inherent power or skill you’re born with
  • Charisma
  • A good public speaker
  • Like a manager, but with superpowers – some kind of Manager++

Each answer contains an element of truth, but they tell only part of the story. They describe some of the attributes of people we have seen be good leaders, but without understanding whether this attribute was as a result of being a good leader, or whether having it increased the likelihood of being a good leader. That’s a bit like realizing that all the successful leaders you’ve seen have blue eyes, so concluding that the only way you can be a good leader is by having blue eyes yourself!

Consider, for example, people in senior positions within large companies. It’s more likely they reached a senior position BECAUSE they showed strong leadership, rather than becoming good leaders as a result of that promotion. It’s also important to remember that it’s perfectly possible to be a good leader without having any “positional authority” (authority derived from one’s place in the organization). We’ve all come across that person with “expertise authority” whom everyone goes to for answers to something complex, or “relational authority” who can get things done, regardless of their formal job title.  

If you’ve always believed that those in power are the leaders, I encourage you to watch the video below. It shows a leader starting a movement that becomes all-inclusive, without any inherent authority or power. This power is actually quite a remarkable thing.

Imagine if you could harness this energy and get your organization moving together in the same direction as this!

There are many effective types of leadership, which goes some way to explain why organizational dynamics are rarely as straightforward as people simply doing what their boss tells them to do.

Let’s look at some of the attributes of good leaders and managers, based on my observation of some outstanding leaders and managers in their fields.

Leaders tend to…

  • Provide a shared belief or sense of purpose (giving people a “Why?”)
  • Inspire & motivate people to bring about that purpose (create a following)
  • Work across organizational boundaries with a sense of inclusion (collaborative & inclusive)
  • Provide a safe space for people to take risks as they strive towards that purpose (supportive)
  • Demonstrate through words and actions their shared values (act as a role model)
  • Own their mistakes, and celebrate their teams’ successes

Managers tend to…

  • Rely on their place in the organizational hierarchy for their power
  • Focus on managing the elements that are directly under their control
  • Have strong cognitive and analytical skills, using metrics to drive decisions
  • Nurture and develop their team’s skills and careers
  • Emphasize processes and throughput
  • Drive efficiencies and incremental improvements

I would argue that the attributes of strong leaders and effective managers do not really conflict; rather, they are somewhat complementary. Some of the best leaders I’ve seen have exhibited many elements of being a strong manager and vice versa – but it’s important to note that you don’t need to be one to be the other.

To drastically oversimplify, managers tend towards positional authority, focused on operating the elements of the organization under their control, whereas leaders tend to use their influence more broadly and persuade people to want to help the leaders achieve their objectives.  An example of this could be a sports figure calling upon their fans to help a good cause – they are using their reputation and influence to persuade others to do something that is important to them as a leader.  An alternate example might be the highly skilled developer in an organization who starts to create a movement towards DevOps because others in the team and beyond respect that person’s work and believe in their vision for the future.

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