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Leadership cannot be taught. It can only be learned. - Harold Genene

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

You have heard something like this: "He's not a leader; he's a salesman." Or: "She was trying to motivate me but gave me a sales pitch instead!"

Being a salesperson can supply a poor foundation for leadership. Because leading and selling, though they share certain qualities, are different activities. Most people go along in their jobs and careers without thinking through those differences and thus mix up the two in self-defeating ways.

I have seen good salespeople fail when moved into leadership positions, and conversely, good leaders fail when they become salespeople or use specific sales techniques to lead.

In both cases, they misunderstood the differences or missed them altogether and so could not align their words and actions to take advantage of those differences. You can manifestly improve your leadership and sales skills by understanding such differences.

On the surface, both sales and leadership focus on ways to influence people to act. Both salespeople and leaders must be knowledgeable, skillful, enthusiastic, and convincing.

However, the differences appear when we drill down into the functions of the relationships involved in selling and leading -- getting customers to buy products or services as opposed to getting people to achieve organizational results.

Here are three defining differences between sales and leadership that can help you both as a salesperson and a leader. Note that the differences are variations on a single, decisive theme.

(1) Salespeople must satisfy customers. Leaders often must dissatisfy the people. People in most organizations are in thrall to a powerful force, the status quo. The status quo is simply the existing state of an organization. You might ask, "What's wrong with the existing state of an organization?" My response is, "A great deal." The status quo of any organization is always wrong.

The trouble with the status quo is not that it gets poor results. If you know you are getting unsatisfactory results, you can do something about it. You can start taking steps to turn them into satisfactory results. The trouble with the status quo is that it gets mediocre results but represents them as satisfactory results. And poor effects are less harmful to an organization than mediocre results misrepresented as good results.

Leadership is not about keeping the status quo (as management does); it is about transforming the status quo to achieve significant increases in results. Such transformation cannot be conducted until people are infused with a powerful dissatisfaction with how things are. Salespeople want customers to like them, but leaders may have to get some people angry with them and what they are challenging them to do. (If they do not have some people mad at them, those leaders might not be challenging all the people enough. Though watch out when you have ALL the people mad at you.)

(2) Salespeople get people to do what they want to do. Leaders aim to get people to do what they may not like and be committed to doing it. Having people get out of the status quo to achieve impressive results means challenging them to be uncomfortable, do things in new ways, learn new skills, and take on perplexing tasks. Good leaders live by the rule that it is better to do the new, right things in the temporarily wrong ways than to do the old nasty stuff in the right ways.

(3) Salespeople must counteract bad feelings on the part of customers. Leaders may have to live with and even accept bad feelings on the part of the people while getting them to move toward their organization's greater goal. When you lead people to the metaphorical mountain, many will want to go to the nearby hill or stay where they are. Standing pat is more comfortable and less risky than going to the peak. But the organization desperately needs them to move to the hill. That is where leadership comes in. In sales, you at once hop on people's disapproval and try to mitigate or cut it. However, in leadership getting people to change from standing pat to being the cause leaders of going forth can involve having to temporarily put up with their first misgivings or even their outright defiance. A CEO told me, "The hardest thing I've had to learn as a leader is grace under pressure. How to keep focused on our company's objectives while weathering the criticisms from the inevitable naysayers."

Keep in mind that despite their differences, sales and leadership share functional similarities. Many sales techniques, especially the art of persuasion, can be effectively used in administration. Conversely, leadership methodologies can be used in sales.

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