The terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably. C-Level executives are often referred to as company managers or senior management. In a typical corporate structure, there is generally a manager position and title, often indicating the first opportunity for one to oversee people or other resources. At the same time, there isn’t ordinarily a leader title in the corporate title mix, although C-Level positions utilize officer – somewhat of an offshoot of the typical “command and control” management philosophy that has driven businesses seemingly for centuries.
All that said, the intent here is not to mince words or play word games. The main premise of this piece is that there is an important difference between a manager and leader. Whatever the title or position in an organization – and that includes CEO – it is possible to be a good (or even great) manager, but not necessarily a good leader. As one works their way up the ladder in an organization, true leadership chops are critical. Despite that, there are organizations that get into trouble, or even fail, due to a failure of leadership, particularly from senior managers. In this context, as one who likes gadgets, companies like Blackberry and Palm come to mind. More recently, look at what is currently happening at Twitter. On the other end, Tim Cook, now CEO at Apple, was characterized early on as simply a great manager who had to take over for the loss of leader Steve Jobs. Time has shown that while his style and approach are obviously different from Jobs, he deserves to be called a leader.
The skills required to lead as one takes on positions of more responsibility and complexity can change. Changing conditions such as explosive growth, competitive issues, and so forth, can require different aspects of leadership. This often explains why promoting someone too quickly into a next level of management can be bad for all involved. There may be people born with ability to learn more readily how to lead, but I hold the belief that leaders can be made with the appropriate mentorship and experience.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked for, with, and/or mentored by true leaders. I reflected on that experience and how one might distinguish between being simply an effective manager versus a true leader. The result was a basic list of questions for managers to contemplate in a moment of self-reflection in respect to how they might be faring as leaders. Given the nature of the topic, I have probably missed a few, but here’s a start, not necessarily in order of importance, and I welcome readers’ feedback:
Do you listen more than you speak?
All the great leaders I’ve encountered or with whom I’ve worked, had a curiosity and thirst for information that required them to be great listeners.
When you speak, do you communicate?
Great leaders have or acquire great ideas and information and, most importantly, have to inform, direct, and collaborate with their team to achieve goals. Talking is easy while truly communicating is not. This is usually one of those “less is more” things.
Are you honest?
Dishonesty is a slippery slope to an ultimate downfall, which unfortunately usually involves more casualties than the original perpetrator. Withholding important information is also a form of dishonesty. Honesty builds trust and trust is the foundation of leadership.
Can you make difficult decisions?
Decision-making is a core leadership quality and the ability to make any decisions is what starts to separate analysts from managers and managers from leaders. As your responsibilities increase, the complexity and difficulty of your decisions increase proportionally. Examples include personnel changes, growth/scaling challenges, reallocation of resources, strategy changes in light of competitive threats, etc. And it’s not about gaining popularity.
In the early days of WWII, after Hitler overtook France, Winston Churchill made the difficult defensive decision to attack the French Navy – incurring the attendant loss of lives from the former ally. He was said to have cried when informing Parliament. It’s hard to imagine a tougher decision for a leader. It remains controversial, although recognized by some historians as an important symbol of British resolve that ultimately helped gain President Roosevelt’s support.
Can you make decisions that transcend data and/or group consensus?
I love data and the critical role it plays in decision-making, but great leaders have the ability to see beyond the numbers sometimes and go against the current. And if your decision-making style is to always gain a consensus among your team, you’re not leading. Collaboration is best not confused with consensus.
Can you look beyond the daily, weekly, or even monthly challenges?
Leaders have a sense of vision that is able to transcend the challenges that comprise short-term management. Leaders are always looking beyond the horizon, even in the midst of immediate crises or criticism. Think Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Bob Iger of Disney here.
Can you think out of the box?
Great leaders have a way of “zigging” while everyone is “zagging,” so to speak. And while creativity and fresh ideas are elements of this, leaders need not always depend on themselves, as they also know how to unearth the creativity and ideas great teams possess. I think it’s safe to say Elon Musk has this quality in spades.
Can you deal with adversity?
It’s inevitable – and either makes or breaks leaders. Also, experience plays a key role in giving leaders the tools and wherewithal to deal with adversity. Unfortunately, we live in a world that too often undervalues experience and its role in developing leaders. Failure is allowed, if you recover and gain from the experience.
Can you blend confidence with humility?
CEO’s in particular are often characterized by their egos. Undoubtedly, the confidence that is connected with ego is a necessary ingredient in effective leadership. That said, I believe great leaders possess – and don’t fear exhibiting – that sense of humility that gives them humanity and engenders trust.
Do you KBO?
The aforementioned Winston Churchill ended his wartime phone calls, including a famously critical trans-Atlantic call with President Roosevelt, with the expression “KBO.” Leaders have that quality of persistence and resolve. When challenged, they “Keep Buggering On.”