“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

— Lao Tzu

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

— Peter Drucker

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

— Warren Bennis

“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.”

— Harold S. Geneen

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

— Peter Drucker

“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.”

— John C. Maxwell

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

— James Humes

“Leadership is about vision and responsibility, not power.”

— Seth Berkley

“Leadership is the key to 99 percent of all successful efforts.”

— Erskine Bowles

“Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating.”

— Simon Sinek

Answer: The majority. Leadership is not a position description. It is not a skill, like managing. It is something leaders, real ones, are born with. Leadership development can only enhance skills, not create real inborn leadership abilities. Do you know what these real leadership abilities are? And why so many organizations are effectively leaderless today?

Over many years, I worked with quite a number of senior executives from CEO and Board Chairman levels on down. Were these strong leaders? Mostly not, but most were very effective, strong, executive-level managers.

I have written a few posts on leadership – here, here, here, and here – if you are interested. These make, or try to make, a strong distinction between leadership and top-level managing. Both are essential, but they are not the same. Very few people have special abilities in both of these.

Today, real leadership is rare. Even executive-level managing is trending toward a bad case of followership. “Everybody else in our business is doing it this way, so we can’t be blamed if we keep in step.”

What is leadership?

I quote myself on this one:

My shortlist of leadership qualities and abilities. Management requires execution skills. Leadership requires vision above all but also some essential, complementary abilities: integrity, courage, communication, passion, commitment, and action:

Integrity: The personal quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness; someone people will trust”

Courage: Having and demonstrating mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”

Communication: The ability to use words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information, ideas, thoughts, feelings clearly and understandably”

Passion: Having and demonstrating strong emotions reflecting an intense desire or boundless enthusiasm”

Commitment: The state or quality of being demonstratively dedicated to a cause, activity, project, person, or organization”

Action: Being able to routinely demonstrate the ability to act, to get something done, to show inspiring initiative or enterprise; action-oriented”

Leadership core abilities.
Leadership core abilities.

You will note that these surround probably the most important leadership ability: vision. Without strong top-level vision, an organization or business is largely just reactive and/or peer-following. Does this describe any that you know or have worked in?

Leadership development

At lower levels in most organizations, capable individuals can and are being taught leadership skills of a sort. Harvard Business Review recently offered a pretty grim picture of what such efforts may be accomplishing: “What Makes Leadership Development Programs Succeed?”:

“Leadership development is a big business. Every year, global organizations spend more than $60 billion on leadership development programs. But the returns these investments yield for leaders and their teams are not always clear. What does leadership development actually accomplish?”

“But in many cases, organizations fail to realize the true potential of leadership development. In fact, one estimate found that just 10% of spending on corporate leadership training delivers concrete results.”

It is quite possible that even the 10% estimate is overstating true results, since many such programs have goals that address mostly management skills, not real leadership skills. At least the ones I looked at.

Leadership skills tend to be rather fuzzy at best. Take “vision”, which I see as the core ability of real leadership. How do you train someone to have “vision” – vision that can be both communicated effectively and turned into productive action? Most people simply don’t have “vision” of this nature. They mostly do pretty much what everyone else is doing.

Real leadership, I contend, is a born ability. It can’t be developed unless the fundamental components are already there and visible. You can develop around rough edges that need to be smoothed, for sure. The leaders I have known certainly had a number of very rough edges. But these edges often seemed to have contributed toward their effectiveness as leaders.

Strong leaders are generally not warm and fuzzy, like so much of what today’s development efforts seem to focus on. Leaders don’t want to “feel your pain”. They seem at times to enjoy creating pain in their workers. They drive subordinates to perform. And they don’t really care about developing you as a person. Leaders just want results. Or else.

Leadership teams?

Leadership team? In practice, this is actually just a management team. Teams aren’t leaders. This is a euphemism. Leaders – really effective ones – are often anything but team players. Team players mostly do management. Leaders run the show and often take most of the credit. Leaders often have huge egos and enormous drive, which do not fit well within team structures and processes.

Organizations do of course require teams in many situations. Teams that get results on what they are tasked to do or decide to do. Vital but not leadership.

Have you ever been in a meeting of senior executives trying to reach a consensus on where to take a business or organization? I have, many times. This collection of major egos is often referred to as “our leadership team”, but it is anything but a team. Typically, the real leader in the group eventually takes control and the “team” turns into followers and silent grumblers.

Team members may well return to their units and exert some measure of leadership locally. Here is how that actually works:

The Leadership – Management Spectrum

Do managers at any level perform leadership functions as well as management functions? Of course. But they do so at varying positions along this spectrum. Some operate largely at the management end, while a few – very few – operate mostly at the leadership end.

Many leadership sources try to make a clear distinction between these, but the result seems to characterize the ends of the spectrum, whereas most people actually operate well inside the extremes. An example is of this is below.

Source: https://www.runn.io/blog/leadership-vs-management/
Source: https://www.runn.io/blog/leadership-vs-management/

I have never observed a manager – i.e., someone responsible for some number of subordinates – who did not have at least a few leadership responsibilities as well. Such as “looking into the future”.

Looking into the future is a function of many jobs, except perhaps for entry-level positions and narrowly-focused worker-bees. Many companies have entire staffs dedicated to looking into the future, with that function being almost the full job for some. These are not leaders by any definition unless they have management responsibilities as well.

Developing particular leadership skills consequently seems important, where the skills are needed in a person’s current position or needed to allow the person to be promoted. That is, the person’s abilities and skills do not appear adequate for either the current position or for the next step up. Of course this process requires some reasonable sense for which abilities and skills the positions require to permit superior effectiveness.

The real challenge is matching people to role requirements

Well-written position descriptions make it pretty clear what the position requires, at least in theory, or in the not-always reliable views of the writers of such documents. No matter for purposes here. What is needed is finding the best possible match between candidate skills and abilities and what the position requires (on paper).

In principle, the position description should indicate the relative importance of each required item (skills, abilities, experience, knowledge, …). How many actually do this? My guess is approximately zero. The recruiter so often has no direct knowledge of what a particular job truly requires in practice. Crapshoot hiring and promotion results.

To make matters worse, the recruiter(s) often have no way of assessing reliably each candidate’s real capabilities for each requirement. Experience and references are often the main resources for such assessments.

For purposes of matching leadership-plus-management job requirements with candidate capabilities on each requirement, we appear to have a wide array of assessment tools. From recruiter Indeed’sCareer Guide: 18 Types of Leadership Assessments”:

“If you’re currently working in a management position, or if you aspire to a leadership role, a leadership assessment may be able to help you evaluate and improve your skills. Leadership assessments are sometimes used by hiring managers to determine potential leadership styles and attributes of candidates applying to leadership positions. And these assessments can help you hone your managerial strengths [emphasis added], increase your self-awareness and potentially advance your career.”

“In this article, we discuss leadership assessments, the importance of leadership assessments and 18 types of leadership assessments you can use to improve your management skills [emphasis added].”

1. DISC assessments. DISC assessments are among the most popular leadership assessments. DISC tests ask questions about a person’s observable behaviors and evaluate how candidates approach challenging situations, communicate with others and solve problems. DISC tests rank assessment-takers in four primary categories …”

2. USC’s Interactive Leadership Style Assessment. The University of Southern California’s assessment analyzes your unique leadership style. Knowing your leadership type can help you have a better understanding of how your team members view you. Leadership styles that the Interactive Leadership Style Assessment evaluates include postmodern, front-line and transformational. When your understanding of your leadership style aligns with what your leadership style truly is, you are more likely to form cooperative relationships with team members, improve on your management strengths and create positive changes at your company.”

3. CliftonStrengths. The CliftonStrengths assessment focuses on what test-takers naturally do best. This leadership assessment helps you both identify these inherent strengths and learn how to develop them. Participants begin by answering 177 questions that analyze how they think, behave and feel in a variety of situations. The CliftonStrengths assessment is an online assessment and costs test-takers either $19.99 or $49.99, depending on how thorough you want your results to be.”

4. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a popular personality test frequently used for employment or leadership purposes. The MBTI assesses four factors related to a person’s unique psychology, or how they act, feel and think. These four factors are …”


11. Mindtools’ How Good Are Your Leadership Skills. MindTools is a free online leadership assessment with 18 total questions. Mindtools’ How Good Are Your Leadership Skills assessment evaluates test-takers in their perspectives and attitudes towards the world, their emotional intelligence and their self-confidence. Based on your results, MindTools also provides customized tools that can help you develop your leadership skills further. For example, see here.

Source: MindTools.
Source: MindTools.

The fallback: Broad-based leadership development

In the absence of actual job requirements in terms of leadership vs. managing, as well as the particular positions that each candidate may be required to fill in future, organizations wisely pursue relatively broad-based leadership development. Such training may be focused on either particular weaknesses or visible strengths to make each candidate more suitable for a wide range of positions.

This worthy approach probably explains why leadership development programs include so many skills, many of which are often among what are actually management skills. Of course having as much as possible within each program is rather costly, but few leadership development program purveyors are likely to complain.

Costly development is rather easy to justify since it is aimed at current and potential leaders/managers – the core strength of the business or organization. As noted above, “Leadership development is a big business … $60 billion a year”.

Tightening budgets on the other hand will force increasing numbers of formerly big-spenders to seek out more cost-effective and better-targeted training. Unfortunately, this belt-tightening approach requires a more reliable understanding of skills needed and skills available among current and potential leader/managers. For this reason, leadership assessments are likely to become far more important and more widely used.

An example of “leadership skills” from a major job recruiter

Not to pick on poor old Indeed, an American worldwide employment website for job listings launched in November 2004 and in October 2010 passed Monster.com to become the highest-traffic job website in the United States. Below is an example of what Indeed thinks are vital leadership skills.

I don’t know about you, but I could substitute “manager” for “leader” in each of these to get a handy list for recruiting managers. How important might each of these skills be to a hire or advancement candidate, or which are most important to the position being filled, a reasonable answer might be “Who knows? Probably nobody in most cases”.

This list shows what a broad-based requirements list might include should you be looking for the perfect candidate or better for any position whatever. But, unless I missed them, I don’t see vision, passion, courage, or integrity – which are among my leadership abilities list above. Absent strong evidence for these, and especially vision, this is a manager skills list.

The following list has been copied unchanged from Indeed’s website:

#1. Decisiveness. Decisiveness is a valuable leadership skill that can help to move projects along faster and improve efficiency. Strong decision-making skills aid in your ability to choose solutions to challenges. Effective decisiveness requires research, evaluation, problem-solving and goal-setting, often with a quick turnaround. Key skills related to being a strong, decisive leader include:

  • Problem-solving
  • Initiative
  • Research
  • Project evaluation
  • Expectation setting

#2. Integrity. Integrity is often seen as simply truthfulness or honesty. However, it also means having—and standing by—a set of strong values. It’s behaving honorably, even when no one is watching. Integrity in the workplace often means making ethical choices and helping the company maintain a positive image. All businesses seek to hire workers who have a strong sense of integrity. A leader with integrity also shows the following skills:

  • Diplomacy
  • Ethics
  • Reliability
  • Professionalism
  • Responsibility
  • Confidentiality
  • Honesty

#3. Creativity. Good leaders often have to make decisions that don’t have a clear answer, requiring them to think outside the box. Leaders with creativity promote a free exchange of new ideas. They inspire innovation and collaboration in the workplace. A leader with creativity also shows the following skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity
  • Diversity
  • Innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Open-mindedness

#4. Flexibility. A good leader should be flexible, accepting last-minute changes or new issues. You should also be open to suggestions and feedback. Managing the unexpected, initiating new courses of action and proposing new solutions can positively impact your team. Flexible leaders display skills such as:

  • Negotiation
  • Adaptability
  • Strength and weakness recognition
  • Feedback
  • Work-life balance

#5. Positive attitude. An effective leader knows that a positive attitude can go a long way in the workplace. You work to create a positive work environment—even during stressful periods. Employees are more likely to be productive and motivated to do their best when they’re happy and feel they’re valued. Skills that help promote a good work environment include:

  • Conflict management
  • Social skills
  • Rapport
  • Empathy
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Respect

#6. Communication. Good leaders can clearly explain things to their team, from organizational goals to specific tasks. Open communication between executives, managers and team members promotes a comfortable atmosphere and transparency. A good leader needs a variety of communication skills, including:

  • Active listening
  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Public speaking
  • Presentation skills

#7. Relationship-building. Leadership requires building and maintaining a strong, collaborative team of individuals working toward the same goal. Relationship-building, also known as team building, requires other leadership strengths, like conflict resolution and effective communication skills. Once you better understand each other, you can benefit by assessing team-member strengths, delegating tasks and completing your goals more seamlessly. A successful leader who’s adept at relationship building will also have the following skills:

  • Collaboration
  • Management
  • Interpersonal
  • Social
  • Teamwork

#8. Problem-solving. Good leaders are skilled at problem-solving issues that arise on the job. Effective problem-solving often requires staying calm and identifying a step-by-step solution. Problem-solving skills can help leaders make quick decisions, resolve obstacles with their team and external teams alike, and ensure projects are finished on time and according to the specifications. Leaders who are effective problem-solvers also have the following skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Analytical skills
  • Research
  • Decisiveness
  • Team-building

#9. Dependability. Being a dependable leader means that people can trust and rely on you. A dependable person follows through on their plans and keeps promises. The strong relationships built by a responsible leader create a resilient team that can work through any difficulties that may arise. Being dependable means meeting deadlines, being straightforward and coming through on your obligations or when you can’t meet a promise or a goal, communicating this early on and having a backup plan. Dependable leaders also have the following skills:

  • Realistic goal-setting
  • Timeliness
  • Initiative
  • Detail-oriented
  • Loyalty

#10. Ability to teach and mentor. One skill that differentiates leadership from many other competencies is the ability to teach and mentor. Effectively teaching colleagues or direct reports to grow in their careers helps organizations scale. Often, this skill requires that leaders think less about themselves and more about how to make their team successful. To be successful as a leader that can teach and mentor a team, you might hone the following related skills:

  • Motivation
  • Clarity
  • Able to recognize and reward
  • Understanding employee differences
  • Feedback
  • Helpfulness

This list was surely developed by some very competent and well-intentioned people, but it doesn’t come close to defining a real leader. At least in my view.

John F. Kennedy, 35th President. A real leader.
John F. Kennedy, 35th President. A real leader.

So, how might one identify and develop real leaders?

Broad-based leader/manager development is one approach, as noted earlier. This can help candidates for hire or promotion to perform well in positions all along the leadership-management spectrum. This can get quite costly, so most organizations and businesses these days will require a more-focused, less-costly approach.

Leadership (and management) abilities and skills assessments can provide the necessary focus. Abilities are what you can do naturally, which you are born with. Skills are learned. You can of course enhance and strengthen existing abilities. Skills must be learned first, at least in general.

In any case, the key is an assessment that provides a baseline for development focusing. This should in theory be able to identify particularly weak and strong abilities and skills. Results will be different for each individual, meaning that development efforts will have to be focused somewhat differently.

Also needed is an assessment for various positions along various career paths. Such assessments should identify what strengths high-performing individuals demonstrate in practice. These will serve as reference points for matching and individual’s abilities and skills to those required for relevant positions. The more accurate these assessments are, the more effective will be the matching of individuals abilities and skills to those for relevant positions.

Even if the baseline assessment is not especially “accurate”, tracking improvements on its various dimensions should be of sufficient value.

Using self-assessment plus 360-assessments

There are a great number of self-assessment “leadership” tools out there. See Related Reading below for an example assessment from MindTools. It shows my responses and score for whatever it may be worth.

Again, the tool “accuracy” (as measured against some credible validation process results) is not especially important in practice. What is important is tracking the changes – hopefully improvements – in each tool dimension. Changes, as assessed consistently (same people doing the assessing) are likely to be far more reliable and informative.

In addition to self-assessments, it is usually valuable to get assessments from others who work with or know the assessed individual. These are called “360-assessments” (360-degrees) for some unknown reason, since all they accomplish is adding some non-self-assessments to get a broader picture. The actual view they add may be rather narrow in practice.

These assessments should indicate abilities and skills that are noticeably weak or strong. Weak areas point to development needs. Strong areas may suggest ways to further improve them.

Another approach that can be quite helpful is to involve a coach who can give the individual personalized feedback and suggestions for improvement. This is an alternative to placing the individual in a development program with others.

Assessing Elon Musk as a leader

Elon Musk is such a visible executive that one might get a rough sense of where he fits on the scale of leadership vs. manager.

Is Elon Musk a real leader? Definitely yes. Why? Elon exudes vision. He is not a visionary – a person who sees the future in some sense – but instead one who makes their own personal vision become real. Elon gets top leadership marks on this one.

Is Elon Musk a “good” manager? Probably not. Why? See Related Reading for one view on this aspect of Elon’s leader-manager profile. Does it matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. All great leaders have personal “flaws” and idiosyncrasies. What really counts is the leadership horsepower, since there are so few truly vision-driven leaders out there. Most of the “leaders” are followers of consensus directions, and are managers primarily.

Elon Musk: A real leader (vision) but not a great manager.
Elon Musk: A real leader (vision) but not a great manager.

Bottom line:

Using the core component of leadership – vision – as a primary criterion, there are very few leaders out and about. Most senior-level people are largely followers of stronger leaders, and are in practice chiefly managers. This means that most organizations are “led” by top people who are following other, stronger, leaders – often externally to the organization.

Think bankers. They seem to be mostly of one mind, and guided (led) by various authority figures like James Dimon, an American billionaire business executive and banker, who has been the chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase since 2005. Dimon was previously on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Virtually all people in higher levels of organizations operate somewhere along the leader-manager spectrum. There are very few close to or at the 100%-leader extreme. The majority operates in a limited leadership role with substantial management functions. The foundation of leadership in my view is vision.

  • MindTools has an amazing array of assessment tools for various purposes. Access is via a monthly/annual subscription. I tried out their “Leadership Motivation” assessment tool as an example. My responses are shown in this one:

Umm …

“In a flexible, hybrid and remote work environment, many leaders have failed to let go: The Elon Musk’s of the world are demanding their people come back to the office or else. These leaders worry that without the ability to look over everyone’s shoulders, their employees aren’t working, are quietly quitting or aren’t working on the right things.”

“They may feel the need to babysit because they don’t trust their team. But threats and micromanaging don’t work. They haven’t empowered their teams or inspired them with a shared mission. Maybe it’s on them for not building that initial foundational trust.”

“It may seem that some jobs ‘need a babysitting culture,’ where people show up, punch a clock and spend the day waiting to leave. They’re just picking up a paycheck. But the reality is that the promise of weekly payments alone can never buy loyalty, nor can it build a team passionate about working together on a shared mission. To create an environment where people love to come to work, leaders need to empower their teams, give autonomy and build a workforce prepared to take on responsibility.”