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Are you a Manager or a Leader?

What makes a true leader?

I read a lot of articles on leadership and I find the use of the word “Leader” to be so vague and inconsistent that it often loses its meaning altogether. It’s most often used interchangeably with the word “manager”, when a manger leads a team of people.

I believe that Leadership is a special quality, rather than a skill. It can be nourished and honed, but I am not sure if it can be taught. Most people would instinctively recognise a true leader, so what are the key characteristics that distinguish them from an otherwise excellent manager?

  • Vision – A true leader is able to look beyond the current obstacles and issues and understand the longer term objectives. Create a strategy that works to achieve long-term goals and harnessing creativity and innovation to succeed.
  • Courage – A leader is prepared to take risks. Decisions that challenge the status-quo and can often be controversial. A true leader knows that failure, is a key part of the learning process and not only tolerates it, but actively embraces it.
  • Communication – A leader listens and shares. True leaders are compulsive communicators and educators. They bring people on board by being open and communicating effectively and continuously. The only way to effectively lead change is to make people buy into the same vision that you are working towards. And the only way to achieve this is if you are prepared to actively listen and consider your team’s views and honestly share your thinking.
  • Empathy – True leaders lead from within not from the front. One of the most fundamental differences between a typical manager and a true leader is that a leader considers himself, or herself, to be part of the team not managing a And more importantly, the team have to see them that way too. A true leader invests time in understanding the individuals in the team and has a personal relationship with them. A leader sees the team as a collection of skilled individuals, where everyone contributes their own unique qualities and skills. The better the leader understands the strengths and issues of each team member, the more valuable that member becomes to the team.
  • Inspiration – True leaders inspire the people that work for them. A true leader enjoys respect and trust from his team. Nothing brings more cohesion in a team than having a common vision that everyone believes in and a leader who they trust and look up to.
  • Passion – A true leader is never on a two-year career rotation plan. A true leader has passion for the goals they try to achieve, the product they are launching or the project they are driving. They build a loyalty and a commitment to that end-goal, defend it passionately from any detractors and consider it their own personal target. A leader is not able to walk away from a job until the goal is achieved.

I have met many managers in my life, but very few true leaders. I have even been on “Leadership” courses where the emphasis was on reporting structures, defining metrics, resolving conflict and performing peer assessments, but nothing on how to be an effective leader.

Organisations – particularly large complex organisations – need to take a hard look at their management structures and executive careers: Do they have mechanisms for identifying, encouraging and rewarding true leaders? Do they promote young people with leadership qualities or are they left festering in minor projects? Do they appoint pivotal positions based on leadership skills or just seniority?

And let’s all start using the term “Leadership” more accurately, not as a euphemism for management.

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