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Leadership: Do We Know What It Is? 4 Pointers to Start You on The Road to Becoming a Leader

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

A leader sees more than others, sees farther than others, and sees before others. - Leroy Eames

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

- Who leaders are - values, motives, personal traits

- What leaders know - knowledge, skills, and abilities

- What leaders do - behaviors, habits, styles, and competencies

However, when one looks at the vast body of research into leadership, it is mainly concerned with: - the inputs of leadership and leaders, - not the outputs, i.e., what leaders achieve.

Two significant factors have led to a great deal of 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 leading research has been on people who are in formal organizational positions (e.g., supervisors, managers, senior executives) ñ the inference being that leadership is an integral part of the traditional management role (Parry, K.W., Leadership Research: Themes, Implications, and a new Leadership Challenge, Leadership Research and Practice, Warri wood 1996).

Our experience designing, developing, and implementing management and leadership development programs, processes, and interventions over the last twenty years have led to The Leadership Benchmark, 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 later follow-up interviews, coaching sessions, evaluation processes, and forums.

In developing The Leadership Benchmark, we have delineated that:

- Leadership is different from and distinct from the management; management ñ 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 one hundred years ago, Mary Parker Follett described a manager as one who gets things done through people. Management educators and scholars still use this description today. Still, they should be changed to one who gets the things done that the organization describes in the manager’s role or position description through the people they have been assigned. I contend 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 receive the title of manager from the organization, 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 work with) can give you the title of leader.

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

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

Leading: Leadership occurs at all levels of the organization. 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 organizational values.

- A shared feeling of power.

Managing: While the leadership function is the big picture, the management function, on the other hand, has a narrower focus. Leavitt described leadership as pathfinding, while management was path-minding. Management is situational and involves:

- 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 organizational context by the leader:

- A shared understanding of the environment.

- A shared vision of where we are going.

- A shared set of organizational values.

- A shared feeling of power.

Other (entirely legitimate) management 360 tools focus on the management function. Therefore, managers who aspire to be leaders need more than the feedback they might get from a standard 360 managerial profile.

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

Anyone in the organization can become a leader irrespective of their formal organizational position. Having a legal manager title 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 is a quick test to gain some sign of 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 answer yes, you are well on the path to becoming a leader. I suspect that many of you will answer this with a ñ. Try not to be concerned about this, as the road to leadership is a long one but a truly rewarding one. If you are concerned that it is taking you forever to develop as a leader, keep in mind the experience of one of the most outstanding 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 shows 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 are not working out or are unclear for us, they can explain what is happening in practical terms that we can understand.

2. They help give us a sense of direction. They can paint a picture of a brighter future and help us believe we can achieve what we want.

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 can make us feel powerful by allowing us the freedom to make decisions about our life, work, and the future.

If you want to develop yourself as a leader, I suggest collaborating with your team to implement strategies to achieve the four leadership outputs described here.

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