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

— Peter F. Drucker

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

— John F. Kennedy

“A leader is a dealer in hope.”

— Napoleon Bonaparte

“Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

“When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’”

— Lao Tzu

“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.”

— M.D. Arnold

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

— Warren G. Bennis

What is a “leader”?

A leader is not just someone who holds a position of authority. Lots of folks in top positions are not leaders but instead managers or executives. Real leaders are highly effective in getting things done and in motivating those who do the heavy lifting. Leaders typically maintain power and influence because they are genuinely supported by most in a group of followers or doers.

Leadership seems to be a very popular topic today. Google search results number in the billions:

  • Leadership … 2,720,000,000 results
  • Leadership skills … 810,000,000 results
  • Leadership assessment … 770,000,000 results
  • Leadership skills development … 870,000,000 results

Surely no need for yet another piece. But my current research on leadership in preparation for designing a combined leadership measurement and improvement DIY tool brought out a truly amazing variety of often-divergent views.

An example: “Leadership matters. It matters today more than ever,” says Raj Sisodia, Babson professor of marketing and the F.W. Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business. “But the old way has run its course. Leadership today must be based on purpose, inspiration, caring, and compassion.”

Babson is an excellent B-school but leadership as “caring” and “compassion”? Give me a break! There are lots of such definitions out there, too many of which are far distant from what I have experienced in dealing with a great number of leaders over the years.

What follows then is my take on leadership based on my own experience. If you don’t agree with it, fine – you can probably find a more friendly version somewhere in the billion or so Google results.

Why is effective leadership so important today?

Major, rapid change; unpredictability; and unfamiliarity. In stable, predictable times, often just good-old managerial ability will do the job nicely. You may have noticed however that stable-predictable times have completely vanished and show no signs of a timely return. Unpredictable, big, fast, new change is with us – for a long while it seems. Maybe forever?

Very few people are good at dealing with this kind of a world. They often deal with change by refusing to recognize it and act on it unless forced to do so. Others would like to act but have no idea what to do. Leaders who can lead in such times are as vital as they are rare.

Agility is a major requirement for success in these times, as I have frequently noted in these posts. Boris Berenberg at Atlas Authority notes in “How to Measure Business Agility: Traits of Agile Organizations”:

“Leadership is by far the top cited challenge among organizations surveyed recently for the 2020 Business Agility Report. Even when leaders provide lip service to a message of transformation, their actions might reflect legacy culture.”

The good news I think is that what is needed is a new kind of leader who can be effective in times of great change and uncertainty. Such leaders seem likely to emerge from the chaos – rising to the occasion, as they say.

This gets quickly into the discussion of whether leaders are “born” or “made”. Traits vs. training. Or maybe both? The answer may be that it doesn’t really matter so long as real leaders do show up.

Given that depending on inborn leadership traits is a bit chancy for most organizations, the focus is likely to turn toward developing the right kind of leaders. Managers are leaders in the sense of current role and authority so why can’t many of these folks be trained as actual leaders? 

Managing and leading are very different

One of the first things that I discovered in my search for tool design ideas is that there is much confusion between leadership and managing. The Drucker quote above nails it exactly: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

A good manager may not be a good leader. I have known and worked with dozens of extremely capable managers right up to the CEO level. Most organizations would be delighted to have almost any one of these on board. But how many of them would I think of as being good leaders as well? Maybe just one or two.

A good leader may not be a good manager. I have known and worked with quite a few folks who filled a true leadership role in their organizations. The key in my mind here is that they provided the dominant vision and energy for the organization. Some did this better than others, you will be surprised to hear. Even more surprising, to me at least, was that the strongest leaders were among the worst managers. A couple of the best were truly dreadful as managers.

This tells me that very different abilities, personalities, and skill sets are needed for managing effectively vs. leading effectively. There are in my experience very few top “two-hat” leader-managers.

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

There may be a few more that are useful for leadership effectiveness but these appear to represent the core set.

My seven core components of effective leadership

Can you turn a good manager into a strong, effective leader?

Managers are primarily doers. Leaders are thinkers and motivators. These are typically very different kinds of people. Many writers seem to think that managing itself is and requires leadership. Managers tell followers what to do.

But that is not leadership in my view.

I worked as a consultant-coach for many years with an extremely capable bank CEO. The coaching example on this site is based largely on this heavily-disguised experience. This CEO could probably run an organization of any size and make it very successful. He was driven, smart, resourceful, and energetic – pretty much as good as it gets. But was he a leader as defined above? No, not really. He lacked an overarching vision other than grow-grow-grow. Unless “bigger” is a vision.

We talked a great deal about various “new directions” that each had a true vision aspect but he did not follow through on any of these so far as I am aware. He kept falling back into the executive management role. That’s just who he was.

Admittedly anecdotal, not data based, but it suggests that truly effective leaders are significantly different from managers. You would not know this from what I have been reading lately about the range of qualities and abilities considered to be important for leaders and leadership development. Some examples:

What a leader is NOT

Leaders, like most other folks, are complex beings. There is no one-size-fits-all definition. They do tend to have certain strengths or attributes in common by which we can identify them but each is largely unique in the particulars.

Below, however, is a list of personal attributes that seem least likely to be associated with an effective leader based on my experience with many leaders:

  • Teacher: Leaders tend to be action-oriented and to expect their team members to be fully up to speed. To hit the ground running. If you need to learn, my team is not the place. Expertise among team members is expected.

  • Humble: The few that I might have described as “somewhat humble” were in fact anything but. The “humble” appearance was mainly a façade. Underneath, enormous self-confidence bordering on arrogance – important for strong leadership, nevertheless.

  • Indecisive: Another unlikely characteristic, given that you have to be decisive to lead effectively. Being “indecisive” is antithetical to the very concept of leadership. Followers can be indecisive, which is why they need decisive leaders.

  • Empathetic: Understanding and feeling your pain or whatever else is not a common leadership attribute. They may well be great at “hearing you” but that is mostly a way to gain vital information. Few pay much attention to another’s real pain.

  • Warm and Fuzzy: Some leaders are actually quite engaging, outwardly friendly sorts of people. This is part of their act in most cases since they will often have to be anything but warm and fuzzy when faced with the need to make tough decisions.

  • Friend: Leaders can be friendly by nature as part of their native charisma but this comforting trait can quickly disappear at tough-decision time.

  • Hesitant: Cautious, maybe, but “hesitant”? Kind of like “indecisive”, which is not common among any leaders that I have encountered. If they appear to hesitate, it is likely that they are still in the information-gathering or options-weighing phase.

  • Patient: This is one that I cannot recall ever having encountered in an effective, strong leader. Managers on the other hand can often be amazingly patient since their underlying goal is to get the job done, whatever it takes. Even patience.

These may be very desirable human attributes generally but my primary leadership qualities and abilities spec is mostly absent of such niceties.

What about us normal managers who want to become stronger leaders?

I have known literally hundreds of managers, many top-notch, who struggled with what appeared to be a peripheral but clear and often growing requirement for real leadership from their organizations. So many were unable to make the transition effectively and eventually retreated into a largely or completely management role. Where they were mostly very successful.

Looking back, it is clear to me now that none of these managers truly understood what leadership is and what it requires in terms of abilities, personality, and skills.

Leadership – real leadership, and not managing – was not taught in B-school to my recollection. It seems to be featured but poorly addressed today in much of what my research here has turned up. Many appear to understand the leader-manager differences but then move on to address a largely manager role and its set of skills.

This unexpected finding got me to wondering what managers can do today to help assess their current leadership attributes, to plan for improving or developing the required attributes, and then to track their progress in this process.

All I found were roughly a zillion “tools”, checklists, programs, coaches, and similar – often quite pricy – approaches. Nothing for someone like myself who just wants to see where they are today in the leadership spectrum, to pick a (very) few areas for specific improvement, and to track my progress at my own pace.

Leadership self-assessment and improvement toolset specification

Since this toolset is still being developed, I’ll simply indicate its specs in broad outline here. The three components are:

  • Measure leadership effectiveness – simply
  • Plan and execute focused leadership improvement actions – simply
  • Track progress of improved leadership effectiveness – simply

Emphasis, as you may have noticed, is on “simply”.

The goal is to make it a do-it-yourself (DIY) tool that could be used at your own pace and aimed at your own perceived set of needs and opportunities for improvement.

Assessing leadership is, or should be, fundamentally based on results, outcomes, and achievements. Outputs of varying degrees. But there is really no way to link any particular set of leadership outcomes – good or bad in degree – with a source individual’s traits, qualities, and abilities. Many have tried but evidence of success ranges from questionable to non-existent so far as I can see.

So why bother measuring anything?

The principle I think applies here is to use each person – yourself, in particular – as a stable reference base of traits, qualities, and abilities, and then focus efforts on achieving a “reasonable” set of leadership outcomes as improvement process goals.

What works for me in leadership assessment, improvement actions, and tracking may well work for hardly anyone else. My leadership outcome goals may similarly differ greatly from those of others. As people differ, the process must differ and be individually tailored. This is why coaching is so helpful since it most often is customized for each person. Essential, I believe.

If an organization wants its leaders to be “compassionate” under some definition, then that’s okay so long as being compassionate has been demonstrated to lead to “successful” outcomes for the organization. “Successful” here may be reduced turnover, or happier employees, or more effective teams.

Organizations can therefore determine their own set of outcomes that represent effective leadership. These may not agree with leadership outcomes, or definitions, of other organizations but it does not really matter. What matters is that the outcome set is what will, or should, lead to the particular organization’s success.

Bottom line:

Leadership and managing are very different. Each person will be best able to do one or other effectively but very few are equally good is both roles. Assessing leadership outcomes, or visible evidence of the results of a leader’s actions, is the best one can do by way of guiding and evaluating improvement processes.

If you would like to be notified when the leadership toolset is completed and ready for use, please email me.

Kate William in SurveySparrow offers a starting list of leadership assessment tools: ”9 Leadership Assessment Tools You Need To Try In 2021”:

“Let’s face it, with tons of leadership assessment tools and tests, it’s quite hard to figure out what works best for your needs and what isn’t feasible. Well, considering that we have lined up the 9 best leadership assessment tools to checkout in 2021. Scroll down to find out the one that rightly fits your expectations and needs. Here are the 9 best leadership tools to look out for this year.

1. SurveySparrow
3. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
4. Gallups Strengths Finder
5. Saville Assessment
6. Enneagram
7. USC’s Leadership Style Self-Assessment
8. The IHHP Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
9. MindTools Leadership Skills Assessment”

Executive search firm 6-Group sees DISC as the top tool in “What are the best leadership assessment tools?”:

“Arguably the world’s most popular leadership assessment tool, the DISC profiling test is simple and intuitive to use. They’re a quick and easy leadership assessment tool to use with a large group of people.”

“Whereas other tests tend to focus on an individual’s preferences, DISC measures observable behaviour. More advanced versions will ask you to differentiate between your behaviour at work and at home. Given its popularity, there are a whole host of DISC tests to choose from, of varying quality. We would recommend that you choose one with good reviews or that has been created by a company you trust.”

“A DISC test will consider whether you are more people-oriented or more task-oriented and whether you are more reserved or active. The four letters of DISC represent the four possible combinations:

> Dominance (task-oriented and active)
> Influence (people-oriented and active)
> Steadiness (people-oriented and reserved)
> Compliance (task-oriented and active)”

“These provide employers with an indication of how a team member tends to approach a problem, how they are likely to react to a challenge and what the best way to communicate with them is.”

“The primary criticism of DISC is that it’s too general and only provides a surface level understanding of an individual, rather than any great insight. Some would argue that the ubiquity of the DISC leadership assessment tool now works against it, with individuals able to guess the ‘preferred answers’.”

MindTools, a learning resources provider, has an interesting view of what constitutes “leadership”: “What Is Leadership?”:

“Leaders help themselves and others to do the right things. They set direction, build an inspiring vision, and create something new. Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go to “win” as a team or an organization; and it is dynamic, exciting, and inspiring.”

“Yet, while leaders set the direction, they must also use management skills to guide their people to the right destination, in a smooth and efficient way.”

“In this article, we’ll focus on the process of leadership. In particular, we’ll discuss the “transformational leadership” model, first proposed by James MacGregor Burns and then developed by Bernard Bass. This model highlights visionary thinking and bringing about change, instead of management processes that are designed to maintain and steadily improve current performance.”

“According to the idea of transformational leadership , an effective leader is a person who does the following:

1. Creates an inspiring vision of the future.
2. Motivates and inspires people to engage with that vision.
3. Manages delivery of the vision.
4. Coaches and builds a team, so that it is more effective at achieving the vision.”

Example of a leadership skills assessment tool/questionnaire, the source of which will go nameless for reasons that should become obvious after you take a quick look. There are so many out there that are not much better: