Am I a MANAGER or a LEADER – Why should I care?

How we perceive ourselves isn’t necessarily equal to how others see us.

I’m often struck by the language we use – the difference between what we say and what we mean.  For example, when recruiting people for management roles, our job advertisements specify candidates who display ‘leadership qualities’.  We ask for evidence of leadership skills.  Often though, when we employ these applicants, what we actually task them to do is implement policy, efficiently and within budget.  Stephen Covey puts it well: Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.”

Interestingly, we tend not to include variants of ‘Leader’ in our job titles.  We like to call ourselves ‘Managers’ or ‘Directors’.  In fact, we associate leadership titles with foreign despots – think ‘Our Supreme Leader’, Kim Jung-un.

We often confuse leadership with authority – particularly the authority vested in a job title.  Many of us have worked for someone whose instructions we followed because we HAD to, not because we WANTED to.  Perhaps the people who work for us take a similar view.

So, ‘What is leadership?’ and, ’Why should I care?’  There’s heaps of research, thousands of books, and oodles of information on the internet – all about leadership.  We can list adjectives for leadership qualities and leadership styles.  We can name the great leaders of the world, and cite multiple quotes on the subject.  Leadership is hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

Sometimes, it’s easier to recognise leadership in others, and harder to display it ourselves.  The reason we should care, is because if we want to progress or change our current situation, we need to take action.  We need to lead ourselves.

Look away from your organisation chart, who are the real influencers in your business? If you don’t know, think about the people you need to convince in order to effectively implement change.  They are the leaders – the chap on the shop floor who everyone else listens to – the lady in credit control who seems to tell everyone what to do – you know who they are.

What about me – how do I know if I am a leader?  An even bigger question, how do I know I am a good leader?    Forget your job title and the number of people who report in to you.  Consider leadership from two perspectives – Self and Others.

  1. Self – am I a leader? Leadership is about making decisions and implementing them. Most people talk about what should be done, but few actually do anything.
  2. Others – The second element relates to the ability to influence others. It’s all very well to be a ‘doer’, but leaders also inspire others to follow – either through words or deeds.

We feel a bit ambivalent about leadership.  We say we want leadership for change, yet we tend to treasure the status quo, and resist change.  Maybe there’s a bit of ‘the devil you know’ about it.  If you’re not convinced, just think about the last three governments we elected. How much change do people really want?

There’s nothing wrong with being a good manager – in fact, good managers are highly valuable in any company.  Leadership though, is much more personal – not something easily charted on a process map.  The challenge is to demonstrate personal leadership, regardless of our position on the organisation chart.

Here are some questions to help you reflect on your own leadership traits in a team environment:1

  • What is the quality of my relationship with the team? (Would the team agree?)
  • Do I respect the team and do they respect me? (Do my actions support this view?)
  • Do we share the same goals? How do I know?
  • Does the team understand my need for information and support? (Do they follow my instructions based on my title or authority, or because they buy-in to my plan?)
  • What does the team need me for?
  • What is the atmosphere like when I’m in the office, and what’s it like when I’m not around?
  • What issues do I and the team avoid discussing?
  • What decisions and actions do I most often procrastinate about?
  • What could I stop doing to improve the team’s performance?
  • What could I do more of to improve the team’s performance?
  • Do I encourage or discourage challenge in the team?
  • How much leadership does this team require?
  • What style of leadership is the most appropriate?

I may be an ‘absentee’ manager who confuses light-touch management with abdication of responsibility.  I may be a micro-manager who trusts no one to do their jobs properly.   I may perceive myself to be a completely different manager to the one seen by others.  Hopefully, I’m regarded as ‘firm but fair’, encouraging of others, and good to work with.  None of these judgments really matters, because all of us can find at least two areas on the list of questions where we can choose to take positive action.  If we do that – simply address one or two issues at a time – then we demonstrate real leadership.

By starting with your own behaviour, you’ll soon begin to see your influence over other people develop. Give it a go – take action.  Do it today.

Dervilla O’Brien 

1Questions adapted from David Clutterbuck, “Coaching the Team At Work”, Nicholas Brealey International, 2007

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