What is a Leader?

Leading the way
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What exactly is a leader? Is it a title, just another name for what used to be called a manager or supervisor, a role or a description or a set of qualities?

The answer is a little of each, but mostly the later.

“Leader” can be found in plenty of job titles these days. All you need to do is search any of the leading job sites for positions with the name “leader” and you will find:

  • Team Leader
  • Crew Leader
  • Unit Leader
  • Division Leader
  • Store Leader
  • Shift Leader
  • Program Leader
  • Business Leader
  • Market Leader
  • Customer Service Leader
  • Sales Leader
  • Human Resource Leader
  • Nurse Leader

And the list goes on and on. Just about every occupation has positions advertised for leaders.

When you dig into some of these job postings, many of them really are supervisory positions. So yes, the term “leader” really has just become a more contemporary and sexy job title for what we used to call foreman, crew chiefs, supervisors, and managers.

I’m guilty of using the terms interchangeably myself. And y ou’ll find that most of what I write about to be a little of both. My readers include managers wanting to be better managers, managers wanting to be better leaders, individual contributors wanting to learn how to manage and/or be better leaders, as well as those helping others become better managers and leaders.

Management and leadership are not the same.

Not all leaders are managers and not all managers are leaders. You can be good at one and lousy at the other, or you can be good or bad at both.

A manager plans and budgets, organizes and staffs, controls and solves problems, produces predictability and order, and fulfills other essential roles.

Leaders establish direction, align people, motivate, inspire, and mentor, and produce change.

While leadership and management are different, they are complementary and equally important. One is not better than the other.

Going back to the job postings – not all of these positions actually supervise people. Some companies are looking to fill a role; they need people that are really good at what they do and can influence others. In these cases, they are looking for leadership qualities, including:

  • The ability to establish a compelling vision
  • The ability to influence
  • Communication skills
  • Charisma
  • Authenticity
  • Humility
  • Self-awareness
  • Composure
  • Maturity
  • The ability to bring out the best in others
  • The ability to handle ambiguity and paradox
  • Influence
  • A willingness to take risk and innovate
  • The ability to collaborate and solve conflict
  • Decisiveness
  • Taking initiative
  • Fostering an inclusive environment
  • An above average intelligence

Just as there are endless job titles and roles that call for leaders and leadership, it seems that there are endless qualities used to define leadership. (See “20 Characteristics of Successful Senior Executives.”)

While all of the above are important qualities, perhaps we could define leadership as:

“the ability to enable ordinary people and organizations to achieve extraordinary results.”

It’s important to note that other than intelligence, there isn’t a single item on the list of leadership qualities that cannot be learned and improved with deliberate practice. Leaders are not born – the evidence is clear on this. Leaders come in all sizes, colors, and shapes, and are never born with a leadership gene. Great leaders are great because they have worked hard at it, harder than most.

How can you tell if someone has leadership potential? See “Seven Ways to Assess for Leadership Potential using the Nine-Box Matrix.”

Now that we have differentiated between leadership and management, identified the qualities of a leader, defined leadership, understand that leaders are not born, and that leadership can be learned, and if we can agree that leaders need people to lead in order to apply leadership, let’s go back to the question “what is a leader?”

It took a while to get here, but let’s try this on for size:

A leader is someone in a leadership role that has qualities that provide leadership.

There it is – nice and simple. Unfortunately, we know that leadership is anything but.