Here’s a working world truth: Just about anyone can become a manager, but only a small percentage of people can be effective leaders.
Stick around a company long enough or apply for the right positions and show an ounce of charisma, and you’ll probably get an opportunity to be a manager. Suddenly, you’ll have actual human beings whose futures and, to varying degrees, sense of self-worth rests on you.
Being a leader is something entirely different. It involves what I contend is an innate ability to guide people, projects or situations — regardless of your official level of authority — through sometimes unforeseeable and complex twists and turns, maintaining grace and poise, while creating an environment in which every single person around you has the opportunity to grow.
Yeah, that’s a big sentence, but it’s an important one. It hits on three key things that some might not agree with but that experience has shown me are most often true.
1. Leadership Can’t Be Taught
If you do a search of the word “leadership” in the “Books” department on Amazon today and if you weed out the ones people have found less-than-stellar by selecting only those with average reviews of four stars or above and if you make sure you’re getting the most recent information by limiting your query to books that have come out in the past 90 days, you will still get more than three-thousand results.
They include such titles as Find Your Leadership Voice In 90 Days: How to show up, speak up, and stand out with confidence and High-Stakes Leadership in Turbulent Times: Why Stakeholders Are Your Greatest Assets … in Good Times and Bad.
You can get some for as little as $5; others cost more than $80.
But why stop there? Universities as varied as Arizona State and California Lutheran University offer in-depth (and expensive) organizational leadership programs that will take you several years to complete and enable you to put some fancy letters after your name before you go forth and change the working world.
And here’s the thing: If you’re not born with that it factor that creates in people a natural sense of trust and inspiration that you then genuinely treat as the most fragile and precious gift in all the world, you’re wasting your time and money.
Good leadership can’t be taught. You’re either born with the ability or you’re not. Oh, sure, all these books and coursework have some value to make OK leaders a little bit better or good leaders great, but they’re never going to turn someone who is only a manager into a leader.
To be a leader, you have to naturally engender trust from other grown adults whose own priorities might not align with the businesses or your own. You must have a natural ability to inspire others to do the hard thing. And you must be able to do these things genuinely and with a sense of reverence for what you are gifted with.
You can’t fake leadership. At least, not in the long-term.
2. You Don’t Need a Title
I have had the title of “manager” at various stops in my career. I was a newspaper editor and publisher. I was a communications manager at an electric cooperative and digital marketing manager with a benefits provider. Those titles didn’t enable me to do anything except be the one whose butt was ultimately on the line if things went horribly awry.
Oh, sure, it’s not a bad thing to have official authority to settle disputes in the way you want things to go, but if you’re using your authority that way, you’re not a leader. Maybe in the military. Not in the real world.
Th fact is, you don’t need a title to be a leader. Some of the most rewarding, enriching and ultimately successful projects I’ve been a part of are ones in which a cross-departmental group of folks on the same organizational level was assembled and, because I’m blessed with the gift of leadership, I ended up guiding things forward. There were no power plays, no politics, no games.
There was a project. There were people involved. And there was me, naturally falling into a position I cherish and don’t take lightly. So when it came time to set project aims and goals, to craft a timeline, to decide on the creative or check the quality or deliver the final report to whoever needed to see the results, I served in a leadership capacity without anyone telling me “You’re the guy.”
Because of this, if you’re a leader, you will end up leading wherever you go. I once somehow became the president of what developed into a 501(c)3 charity that put on an annual back-to-school fair complete with medical screenings and school supplies to help low-income families — despite the fact that I didn’t have a kid in public school and, in fact, homeschool my children. That title of “president” didn’t mean anything. My vote on the board was just one of the seven. But I valued the position I was in and appreciated guiding the team toward the crescendo of a successful event each late summer.
3. It’s Not About You
We’ve touched on this in our first two items, but it warrants its own explanation. Leaders are genuine and put the best interests of others at the forefront of the decisions they make.
This is not to say that leaders are constantly self-sacrificing martyrs. They’re not. It’s completely acceptable, appropriate and within the bounds of the definition of leadership to want a project to succeed for what that success brings to you, personally. Leaders aren’t blind to ambition.
What they are is blind to blind ambition. Leaders do not advance their own careers and own causes at the expense of others. Leaders don’t let personal emotions get in the way of doing what is right. And leaders don’t de-value the people who have put their trust in them. Yes, these things happen with leaders from time to time, but they shouldn’t happen often. And when they do happen, leaders quickly recognize the error and make amends in ways that match the intensity of the error.
Leaders aren’t threatened by the people rising behind them. In fact, they nurture those people and help them develop further. Managers keep those people under their thumb and crush their spirits to put them back in line. Leaders help people fly. I always wanted people on my team who wanted my job. They should want my job, and I should help get them to that point so they then take what I’ve done and bring it to a whole new level.
If you’re a leader, the word “we” comes out of your mouth much more than “I.” Leaders recognize and acknowledge openly and willingly before others that the good things that are happening are because of the team. Yes, we all need to toot our own horns once in a while, but those situations should be rare. Our ability to guide others in pursuit of success should speak for itself.
So you’re a leader. What now?
Here’s the thing: It’s OK if you’re not a leader. Being a leader comes with a huge pile of burdens. It’s not for everybody and, even for those it is for, it takes its toll. I have found myself in many, many situations in which I wish I wasn’t in a leadership position. During the crash of the newspaper industry, I had to tell more than a few truly talented people that, effective immediately, they no longer had a job. That sucks. It also sucks to be the point person for a project that goes off the rails and to find your own neck on chopping block because of it. And it’s a royal pain in the butt to be the president of an organization that runs a back-to-school fair when the air conditioning goes out at the venue the day of the event and it’s 102 degrees outside.
The reality is, the world doesn’t need a ton of leaders. So if you’re not a leader, keep doing what you do with the talent and enthusiasm that moves the team forward.
But the few leaders the world does need? They need to be good. They need to be selfless. They need to be genuine. They need to care.
So if you’re thinking about taking that step to become a leader, two things:
First, take a step back. Ask yourself: “What’s behind my desire to lead?” Is it personal glory? The desire for more money? A sense of purpose in the mission and the realization that you have something to offer to better the cause and the lives of those who work so hard for it? If you want to lead and the desire to help the mission isn’t in your top one or two reasons, just don’t.
Then, if you realize you are doing it for the right reasons, don’t wait! You don’t need a title or a blessing. Go out there, find a project or charity that needs you and start leading.
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