When is a Leader not a Leader? – LogiSYM July 2020

When is a Leader not a Leader? – LogiSYM July 2020

The answer is when he is a manager. Let me expand on that statement.

“Manager” and “leader” are sometimes used interchangeably in the corporate world, but they are not the same. As an ex-corporate manager of thirty years and leadership Coach for the last sixteen, I have studied, taught and coached leadership.  I have coached senior managers across all industries from pharmaceuticals to aviation to mining and many more, as well as the Singapore civil service.  Ask a selection of management gurus what the difference is between a manager and a leader and you will probably hear a dozen different opinions. From my experience as a leadership Coach, I have been able to reach my own conclusion as to where management stops and leadership begins. 

Over a period of five years, I co-facilitated a coaching skills workshop and one of the exercises we gave participants was to split them into four teams, give them a flip chart and pose the question, “What are the key attributes of the best leader for whom you have ever worked?” After the first three or four runs of the workshop my co-facilitator and I were able to accurately predict what we would see on the flip charts. There would be some givens, such as; credible, had integrity, trustworthy, decisive, knowledgeable. The rest of the charts were filled with words like; good listener, great mentor, interested in me, cared about my development, empathetic, inspiring, role model, generous, patient, trusted me, supportive, empowering, nurturing, appreciative. This pattern of description of the ideal leader was consistent across hundreds of people, mostly middle managers themselves. 

Interestingly, when we asked our workshop participants how much of what they had described they were doing at work now, the answer was invariably, “I’m too busy getting stuff done”. In reality some of them were not even managing, they were tasking. This phenomenon is found particularly in technical experts who are elevated to a management position. They are used to being measured on KPIs that define tasks to be done and by when. So, they carry on doing just that. I wrote about this in my article, The Task Warrior Leader. The article points out the wide range of excuses managers can find to evade the tough task of leading, to avoid concerning themselves with the “soft skills” of leadership. They do it by prioritising their personal involvement in tactical tasks, much to the annoyance of their subordinates, who just want to get on with what they are paid to do, with minimal interference.

As an example, I was coaching a senior manager in a large organisation and in one of our sessions he complained about a particular team leader with whom he was struggling. His PR department of six people was led by a lady who delivered excellent work, on time, every time. When there was a crisis, she was always on the ball and had all the answers for the media, ready to go. He had just been through her annual appraisal and much to her shock and horror had given her the lowest possible grade. She challenged him on the grade and fiercely defended herself, pointing out how timely and professional her output was, especially when it really mattered. He had to explain to her that she was paid to “lead” a team of professionals and develop them. Her newly hired team members rarely stayed for more than six months at most.  She was doing most of the work herself, while her highly qualified team members were doing mundane tasks that bored them stiff. They felt underutilised, not trusted, demotivated, unappreciated and uninspired. She was a task warrior leader and had failed to do what she was paid to do.

In essence, a successful leader masters what our coaching workshop participants always described as soft skills. However, I do not believe in “soft skills” when it comes to leadership. It is those, so called “soft” skills that distinguish a leader from someone who is purely a manager.  They are the “hard skills” of leadership. It is the hard skills of human-to-human relationships that mark out an exceptional leader, as opposed to the purely role-to-role relationships of the average manager.

Can a manager be a good leader too? Does it mean I have to care more about my people, their lives and their development, at the expense of meeting the KPIs? No. It is a question of balance. You can be masterful in the hard skills of leadership and still set high performance expectations from your team members. Approachability, care and concern, empowerment and encouragement can be balanced with honest feedback and assertiveness when the going gets tough or performance is below par. But that is a topic for a future article.

Dennis Heath

Dennis Heath is an Executive Coach and author of many articles on leadership and coaching. He is the founder/owner of WayAhead Leadership Solutions Pte Ltd, a company offering senior level coaching services across the Asia Pacific region.

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