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A quick search on Amazon.com indicates that there are more than 187,000 books with “leadership” or related words in the title. That’s a lot of content written on a single topic.
However, the word “leader” has been applied to so many different areas of activity that it has become meaningless. Apart from political and military leaders, we have business leaders, market leaders, industry leaders, thought leaders, and so on.
The concept has become so overused that we’ve lost a true understanding of exactly what leadership is. As a result, today’s employees don’t trust their leaders like they used to. And because of this, many areas of the business might suffer, like employee engagement and employee retention.
That said, earning the title of “manager” is one of the greatest professional milestones a contributor can achieve. It means you’ve been deemed capable enough in your current job to be directing others to do it.
Even though this is a leadership role, actually being seen as a leader is no easy task. It takes a great deal of devotion, stamina, and determination.
A manager is someone who keeps operations running smoothly and ensures tasks are completed to meet the defined criteria. A leader, on the other hand, pushes the envelope and drives innovation.
“A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but a molder of consensus.” – Martin Luther King
Make no mistake, both managerial and leadership roles are essential in business. However, leaders are the ones who tend to be remembered and cement their legacies in the history (and self-help) books. Here is what you can do to be one of the crème de la crème…
1. Exhibit Emotional Intelligence
An emotionally intelligent leader can be defined by five major components:
- Social skills
Plain and simple, business is about people, both internally and externally. A good leader is well-aware of this and uses these components to pick up on the sensitivities of those around them. They can see the big picture and acknowledge opinions in the correct context of how they fit into it. Even more, they can anticipate reactions and proceed appropriately on instinct.
In terms of emotional intelligence, perhaps the most valuable trait of effective leaders is their ability to listen critically and observe neutrally. In addition to understanding what others are saying, they also take mental notes of the emotions behind the words. In many cases, these are much more important than the words themselves.
Leaders are visionaries. They know how to work with what they are given and inspire others to collectively achieve long-term goals. Speaking of vision . . .
2. Commit to Your Vision
Managers are committed to an organization and its goals. Their loyalty is to the company, and they have the reliability and inflexibility typical of the “good soldier” in that commitment. They’ll ask staff to push ahead, chasing the company’s aims. But their primary duty is to the organization.
By contrast, leaders are committed to their vision. We hear a lot about how leadership goes hand-in-hand with disruption, but unless you’ve worked with a true leader you don’t necessarily realize that disruption starts at home – in the leader’s own organization. Managers want to keep the show on the road. Leaders ask if it’s the right road, the right show, the right cast. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams and teamwork, has this to say:
“Every team needs a deviant, someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.”
While managers want each day and each operation to run smoothly on well-understood lines toward predefined goals, deviants are the ones who stand back and say, “Well, wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all? What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?”
When the Hackman deviant is just another team member, not a leader, they can be shouted down or frozen out, especially by over-organizing managers. But when they’re the one in charge, the whole team is moving toward innovation.
If you want to be a great leader, expect – and cause – the ground to shift under your feet in ways no manager would ever want. Change your vision of commitment before you commit to your vision.
3. Get Your Hands Dirty
Most great leaders have a common trait: their subordinates trust them and demonstrate unflinching loyalty to their cause. To achieve this, you must prove that you are willing to put yourself in the trenches and not delegate any task that you wouldn’t do yourself.
In other words, you must practice what you preach and not be afraid to jump into the thick of things. Working side-by-side with your subordinates will give you a better idea of exactly how things run on the ground level as well as working knowledge of the tools and methodologies your team uses to complete their tasks and streamline job management.
At the end of the day, demanding respect won’t give you the results you want. To actually earn it from those around you, one of the best things you can do is exhibit an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude.
4. Build People Up
When looking at the concept of people management, there are two major theories to consider.
The first one is Theory X. Managers who fall under the purview of Theory X are more pessimistic and generally assume subordinates do not like their job, avoid responsibility, and must be constantly controlled. These managers are typically known for stifling ideas and not focusing on the unique value each person offers. When this is the case, employees can easily lose motivation, resulting in a high turnover rate. In fact, a study by Gallup found that the odds of an employee being engaged are only 9% under such circumstances.
On the contrary, Theory Y is the one most often adopted by respected leaders. These managers live under the assumption that their subordinates are self-motivated and can work on their own initiative. When the work environment of an organization assumes and provides for such a culture, employees feel fulfilled both personally and professionally, and are motivated to do their best work.
Ultimately, it’s much harder for an organization to develop when managers tend to hold people back. A good leader encourages others to speak up and be meaningfully involved in completing the mission, rather than just following orders. Essentially, leaders coach and mentor, managers give commands.
The key to becoming a “Theory Y Leader” is by promoting transparency in the workplace. Make it a point to encourage open communication. Ask for honest feedback and value everyone’s opinions. This is how company cultures evolve and employees feel more engaged.
5. Challenge the Status Quo
As previously stated, managers keep operations running per usual. Leaders are known to break the mold and take risks. Bill Gates dropped out of college to start Microsoft. Alexander the Great marched a tired but undefeated army on and on. The best leaders are not remembered for playing it safe when opportunity arose.
To establish yourself as a leader, you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone, without being intimidated by the idea of failure. While you should always take appropriate precautions and “manage” risk, remember that leaders embrace change, even if there is nothing wrong with the current status quo. Great breakthroughs don’t happen without a significant risk factor.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw
Leadership is about finding new and innovative ways to improve the norm. When you take risks, you are not judged by the extent of your success or failure. You are defined by the thought process underlying your approach, how you reacted throughout the execution, and what you did with the outcome.
Over to You
It’s important to note that leadership and management are not mutually exclusive roles. Leaders are managers by nature, and vice versa, in many instances. There will always be a need for someone to keep operations going steady. But for a business to see significant growth and development, managers must strive to push boundaries and claim new territory. The impact of a true leader is profound and influences the way people work and live. Ultimately, true leaders are those who make the world a better place.
Check out The Ultimate Guide to Employee Recognition to see how leaders can effectively engage, align, and set their employees up for success.
About the Author
Lori Wagoner is a market research consultant. She advises small businesses on new ways to find local and national business. She’s an avid blogger and writes for sites such as Small Business Can, Tweak Your Biz and Customer Think. You can catch her on Twitter @loridwagoner.