You decide: Leader, Manager, Boss — Which is best?


Leading backwards and downwards

If there is one thing I have learned in the land obsessed with leadership, then it’s this. I’m a silly old fool.

To me, leadership is about leading. And leading implies movement, not standing still. It is about going places, not staying put in one place.

Based on this view of leadership, I believe that a leader is successful when we get there, when we have arrived (when leadership is no longer needed). By implication, a leader has failed when it is clear that we will not reach our destination or achieve our goal (or if we don’t even know that there is a destination or goal). Somewhere in between striving and arriving is where leadership happens — where leaders lead and followers follow.

For some weird reason, I have always assumed that leadership is about going forward and upward to a better place and time, to the better us we can all become. And I assumed that sliding backward and downward we can do on our own, without the help of a leader.

Silly old me.

Too many lost leaders clamoring for attention

You can tell how lost people are by how much time they waste on leaders and leadership.

Note this. You will not be lost if you lead your life. Did you catch that? Lead your life. We are all leaders. So enough with this leadership nonsense.

Do you still think that leadership is more about leading other people’s lives rather than merely your own? You do? Well, then answer these questions before you impose your lead on others.

Do you have a strong drive to lead?

Is it strong no matter the circumstances?

There is a third question, but I’m afraid if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two, then you are not equipped to answer this one.

Are you capable of leading?

In your case (if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions), only followers can answer accurately whether you are capable of leading.

If you insist that you are capable to be the leader, no matter the circumstances, then please consider this. Your leadership drive is merely your ego clamoring for attention.

The leadership pyramid paradox

Egos clamoring for attention remind me of another of my favorite leadership dilemmas. (Indeed, there is more than one.) I think I’ll call it the Leadership Pyramid Paradox.

The more you are promoted, the higher up you go in the organization. (Obvious!) If you are a wise and effective leader, then you understand that the higher up your perch, the less it is about you and the more it becomes about your colleagues and your team.

Here’s the paradox. The higher up you are, the more visible you become. The more visible you are, the more your ego is fed. The more bloated your ego, the less space you have to include others.

And the easier it becomes for you to say, and act, ‘I’ instead of ‘we’. (Just in case there is at least one more silly old fool, apart from me, reading this, allow me to explain. If it is all about ‘I’ and not about ‘we’, then we-the-followers will desert you and you will once again be a leader of one.)

The leadership trick is to remember that height gives you vista, the view to see all of your colleagues (or, if you must, your ‘followers’). And then to use your perch on the pyramid, not to shine, but to reflect, in both meanings of the word.

Managing our leaders

I get annoyed when people act as if leadership and management are interchangeable. And I get even more annoyed when people think that leadership is more important than management. Leadership has become more glamorous and financially rewarding, but more important? I don’t think so.

A leader will stand on a river bank and say, ‘Boys, see how green the grass is on the other side. We must get there as soon as possible.’ You can trust me on this one — nothing will happen unless a manager-type quietly goes to work.

And what does this manager-type do? Without being told to, he or she breaks the vision down into action steps, determines the appropriate sequence of events, selects the right people for the tasks, secures the needed tools and materials, and defines performance measures to ensure the project stays on track.

Leaders might get things envisioned, but managers get things done.

You can fake leadership and management for a moment, but boss is for real

What’s the first thing you discover on your first day at work? That’s right! Who’s the boss!

The boss can be a leader or a manager or even both. Here’s the interesting thing. The organization decides if the person is a boss; results decide if the boss is a manager; and we decide whether the manager is a leader. In that order.

Nonsense is always at work and it always creates a divide — sense versus nonsense. Hence we have manager on the one side and leadership on the other. But which side is sense and which side is nonsense? Here’s how to tell.

Ask yourself, is leadership nonsense? Yes, when a specific situation requires management instead. Is management nonsense? Yes, when leadership is needed.

But what about boss? Well, within hierarchies of power, managers and leaders are also bosses. There is no nonsense divide in ‘boss’ — either you are the boss, and act it, or you are not.

You can fake leadership for a while and you can play at management for a moment, but boss is for real.

May the nonsense be with you.

(Did this article make sense to you? Or is it nonsense? Please hit the clap button so that others can find it and decide for themselves. And don’t hesitate to follow me for more nonsense.)




James McIntosh : Executive Coach since 1990

Writes: "Your Trigger Question" to trigger your thinking and "Insights" to shift your perception of nonsense at work.