Leadership is Not Management

Leadership Truth

Being in management, does not make you a leader. Being a leader does not require a formal title.

Being in management does not make you a leader

My team and I were all in data engineering-type roles, and had been for quite some time.  All of the development teams, including ours were transitioning from a waterfall to an agile development methodology, and our team’s first assignment by management was web-based development.  In addition to our team switching from data engineering to web development, there was a culture of blame shifting and “us vs. them” across development teams.  I wasn’t quite sure if our team would survive the different type of work we were given, or if we could sustain the positive culture that we had built.  To be honest, we wondered if the organization was setting us up to fail…

Merriam-Webster defines the word “Manage” as “to handle or direct with a degree of skill: such as 1) to exercise executive, administrative, and supervisory direction of, 2) to treat with care, 3) to manage and keep compliant.”  John Kotter defined management, in an article for the Harvard Business Review, as “a set of well-known processes, like planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well.”  Based on these definitions, I think of standards, process, compliance, budgets, etc…, which are all good things, but are not really characteristics of someone in leadership.  Both of these definitions lack a few key tenants of leadership, which we’ll look at next.

Being a leader does not require a formal title

Merriam-Webster defines the word “Lead” as “to guide someone or something along a way”.  There are three primary inferences in that definition that are important.  None of them are found in the definition for management, and none of them require a management title to do.

Leadership requires followers

First, someone who leads is guiding someone else.  In my leadership paradigm, which I’ll share in a later blog post, I describe a primary indicator of a leader as having followers.  So if you think you are leading, look behind you.  If no one is there, well, you get the point.

Leadership happens on a journey

Second, infer from that definition that there is a journey – “along a way”.  Status quo is not sufficient.  Some managers have a role of keeping the lights on, but even in those cases the manager should be, metaphorically,  looking for more efficient lightbulbs, or installing windows.  If you aren’t going somewhere you aren’t guiding.  If you aren’t guiding, you aren’t leading.

Leadership points to a destination

Third, infer that there is a future end-point.  A leader needs to be able to cast a vision and a plan to accomplish that vision.  I once heard someone say, “A vision without a plan is just a dream”.  It isn’t good enough to assume someday you will get there.  Work with your team to figure out how to get where you want to be, and then do it.

Kevin Kruse, a contributing writer for Forbes wrote an article titled, “What is Leadership?”.  In his article, he concludes by stating, “Leadership is about maximizing the effort. It’s not, ‘Hey everyone, let’s line up and get to the top of that hill someday.’ But rather, ‘Hey, see that hill? Let’s see how fast we can get to the top…and I’ll buy the first round for anyone who can beat me up there.’”  Do you see the three components of leadership? Do any of them require a title?

Managers who are not leaders have the following characteristics:
  • You focus on telling people what to do, rather than casting a vision of where you want to take the team.
  • You haven’t introduced positive change to your team in the past 6 months.
  • Your team has below average morale.
  • Your team has moderate-to-high turnover.
  • You don’t know the names of everyone on your team.
  • You focus on what people do wrong and not on what people do right.
  • Your emotions are unpredictable throughout the day.
  • You talk about team members and not to them.  This includes talking about your leaders and not to them.
  • You think your team is there to make you look good.
  • You focus more on moving up rather than on serving your team.
  • You are annoyed when team members ask for help.
  • You get upset when a team member out-shines you.
  • You do not have time to help a team member.

Don’t be discouraged if you see some of these things in yourself.  I see them in myself, sometimes in different seasons.  That just means I haven’t arrived yet, so I’ll keep working on it.  Commit to change.  When you see something you need to improve, find an accountability partner and go change it.

Don’t wait for a title to lead.

…On the first day of our first sprint (2 weeks of work), I sat down with the data engineers and we discussed what we wanted our team to look like.  We decided we wanted to succeed in whatever role management asked us to play.  We decided we wanted to treat other teams with a high degree of respect, and we decided we wanted to maintain a positive attitude and culture.  

Asking a data engineering team to do web development didn’t make any sense at all, but we substantially surpassed our committed velocity (we did very well) by our second sprint (within 4 weeks).  By our third sprint (6 weeks) we were moved back to data engineering work.  We still maintain contact with each other, and I still look back at that team with a great deal of respect for what we were able to achieve and overcome.  We didn’t need a title, and in this situation I’m not sure someone with a title could have helped.  We decided what we wanted to be.  We went for it.  And we achieved it.

In the comments below, would you share a personal example of a time you lead with influence?  Perhaps it wasn’t you, but a leader you’ve watched.  I would love to hear about it.

Check out “Finding Leadership – An Introduction to the Series”  to see the purpose of the series along with a list of topics that will be covered.

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