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  • Writer's pictureBrett Simpson

In my experience…leadership is rarely an individual effort

Early in my career one of my goals was to manage people.  That was a goal for two reasons.  First, the ability to manage people was valued and rewarded by raises and promotions.  Second, it contributed to my professional and personal growth.  When I was given the opportunity to manage people I did a decent job.  I say ‘decent’ because no one I managed experienced catastrophic failure and we usually met our objectives.  Yes, I acknowledge that’s a fairly low bar for success.

Managing people is hard and it took time for me to develop as a manager.  I was very methodical in my approach, making sure everyone knew what they needed to do, had the tools to do so and then delivered.  During that time my assumption was that managing was the same as leading.  Looking back now though I’m not sure how much of a leader I was, rather more of just a manager.  Both are important roles, but different in purpose and execution.  In this context I’m not talking about literal titles, rather the roles themselves.  A person with a Manager title can absolutely be a Leader, but that’s not guaranteed.

My own flawed and inarticulate definition of leadership versus management is as follows.  Whereas being a manager is an assigned and / or tactical role, being a leader includes the managerial assignment and the addition of inspiration, motivation, vision, innovation, participation, collaboration, etc.  Being a leader involves intangibles that people are drawn to and want to follow so they can associate with and be a part of what the leader is doing.

Many people can manage, fewer can lead.  Leaders are special because of how they lead.  In my experience, leadership is rarely an individual effort.  Leaders engage with those they lead because they know they’re stronger and better together.  Managers dictate instructions, participate little and are less interactive than leaders.  A manager wants to get the job done and has little focus on anything else.  A leader wants to get the job done, develop people, grow capabilities (individual and corporate) and make a difference.

It’s possible for managers to be very successful.  It’s possible for leaders to fail.  I encourage individuals or groups I interact with to develop their own managerial and / or leadership styles by evaluating those managers or leaders they work for or with.  What do you like about them?  What do you not like?  What works?  What doesn’t?  We’re all unique and no one is perfect, so we need to evaluate what resonates with us about managers and leaders.

Leadership can be learned.  There are certainly innate traits people have that make them more predisposed to developing as leaders, but the environments we’re thrown into throughout life impact our ability to grow and become leaders.  I like to think that I’m a good leader (at least sometimes).  I feel most leader-ly when I’m doing something where there’s a natural connection and synergy with those I’m supposed to be leading.  I need them as much as they need me.  

I’m constantly asking myself, what type of leader do I want to be, and how can I make that happen?  In a previous article I wrote about how everyone has a story.  Part of my learning about leadership comes from others’ stories because of the lessons and life experiences in those stories.  Leadership happens all around us.

Special thanks to Randy Powell, who brings an amazing diversity of story-based leadership lessons to his teams, and to Steve Johns, who leads by bringing leaders together to learn, share and grow with each other.   

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