Leadership – Do We Know What It Is? 4 Pointers To Start You On The Road To Becoming A Leader

A great deal of work has been done by many authors and researchers in trying to identify and define “leadership”. The vast body of research has focused on leadership traits, habits, competencies, behaviours, styles, values, skills and characteristics. Dave Ulrich (Ulrich, D et al, Results Based Leadership, Harvard Business Press, Boston, 1999) categorised much of the research into:

– Who leaders are – values, motives, personal traits

– What leaders know – knowledge, skills and abilities

– What leaders do – behaviours, habits, styles and competencies

However, when one looks at the vast body of research into leadership, it is mostly concerned with: – the inputs of leadership and leaders, – not the outputs – ie. what leaders achieve.

Two significant factors have led to a great deal of the confusion around the issue of “leadership” and the definition of leadership itself.

Firstly, many authors erroneously use “leadership” and “management” interchangeably as if they were the same thing.

Secondly, a great deal of the research into leadership has been with people who are in formal organisational positions (e.g. supervisors, managers, senior executives) – the inference being that leadership is an integral part of the formal management role (Parry, K.W., Leadership Research: Themes, Implications, and a new Leadership Challenge, Leadership Research and Practice, Warriewood 1996).

Our experience in designing, developing and implementing management and leadership development programs, processes and interventions over the last twenty years has led to the development of The Leadership Benchmark™ ([http://www.nationallearning.com.au/index_files/LeadershipDevelopment.htm]), a 360 developmental tool for leaders and aspiring leaders. Much of the initial research emanated from focus groups of key stakeholders (participants, peers, managers, staff, customers, suppliers etc) conducted as part of these development initiatives and the subsequent follow-up interviews, coaching sessions and evaluation processes and forums.

In developing The Leadership Benchmark™, we have clearly delineated that:

– Leadership is different from and distinct to, management – it does NOT necessarily occur as part of a formal management position

– Leadership is contextual and therefore has to do with outputs (what the leader achieves) as much as what the leader is or does (inputs)

1. Leadership v’s Management

Almost 100 years ago, Mary Parker Follett described a manager as “one who gets things done through people”. This description is still used by management educators and scholars today, but in my opinion should be changed to: “one who gets the things done that are described by the organisation in the manager’s role or position description, through the people they have been assigned”. My contention is that, if you are a manager, then:

– You become a manager when you sign on for the job

– You only become a leader when your people say so

So, you get given the title of “manager” from the organisation and people will do things for you (either well or not so well depending on how well you manage them) because of WHAT you are not WHO you are. Only your people (your team, the people you manage) can give you the title of “leader”.

In other words, the organisation gives you your “corporate” manager’s hat that lets everyone in the organisation know that you are officially a manager. Then, your people, when they believe in you, give you your leadership badge, your badge of honour!

I am indebted to my colleague Dennis Pratt (Pratt, D., Aspiring to Greatness – Above and Beyond Total Quality Management, Business & Professional Publishing, Sydney 1994) for enabling the clear distinction between leadership and management that has assisted our research in developing The Leadership Benchmark:™ . This distinction is described as:

• Leading: Leadership occurs at all levels of the organisation. The essence of leadership is concerned with creating the following conditions that encourage others to follow:

– A shared understanding of the environment.

– A shared vision of where we are going.

– A shared set of organisational values.

– A shared feeling of power.

• Managing: While the leadership function is “big picture” the management function on the other hand, has a narrower focus. Leavitt described leadership, as “path finding” while management was “path minding”. Management is situational and invloves:

– Getting things done (task focus)

– Through people (relationship focus).

2. Leadership is contextual and is concerned with outputs

The Leadership Benchmark™ focuses purely on the following four outputs achieved in any particular organisational context by the leader:

– A shared understanding of the environment.

– A shared vision of where we are going.

– A shared set of organisational values.

– A shared feeling of power.

Whereas many other (quite legitimate) management 360 tools focus on the management function. Managers who aspire to be leaders therefore need more than the feedback they might get from a normal 360 managerial profile.

3. If you are a manager, what does this mean for you?

Anyone in the organisation can become a “leader” irrespective of their formal organisational position. Just because you have a formal title of “manager” does not mean you are a leader. So for example when a fire breaks out in the building and the brand new young employee who has just completed induction training, and who instructs people to follow the evacuation procedures impeccably, shows as much leadership as the CEO who has just announced the new corporate strategy for everyone to follow.

Here’s a quick test to gain some indication on your status as a leader. Once you have been in your current role for say, 9 to 12 months, ask yourself “Would my people do the things I now ask them to do even if I were not their manager?” If you can truthfully answer “Yes”, then you are well on the path to becoming a leader. I suspect, that many of you will probably answer this with a “Maybe” – try not to be concerned at this, as the road to leadership is a long one, but a truly rewarding one. If you are concerned that it seems to be taking you “forever” to develop as a leader, keep in mind the experience of one of the greatest leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison waiting to show how he could lead his country!

4. How to develop yourself as a leader

Our research indicates that leaders become leaders because they do four things (at least) for us:

1. They help us understand and make sense of our environment. So for example, when things aren’t working out or are unclear for us, they are able to explain what is happening in practical terms that we can understand.

2. They help give us a sense of direction. They are able to paint a picture of a brighter future and help us believe that we can achieve the things we want to achieve.

3. They give us a belief in the values that are important to us. In doing so, they make us feel part of a team of people that share these values and have the same aims.

4. They are able to make us feel powerful by allowing us the freedom to make decisions about our life, work and the future.

If you are looking to develop yourself as a leader, then I would suggest working with your team to put in place some strategies to achieve the four leadership outputs we have described here.

Copyright 2006 The National Learning Institute

Bob Selden is the Managing Director of the National Learning Institute. He has been an HRD consultant for over 30 years, prior to which he was a line manager in a financial organisation. He is the author of The Leadership Benchmark™ and is a part time member of faculty at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne and the Australian Graduate School of Management in Sydney. You can contact Bob at http://www.nationallearning.com.au/

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