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What is a leader? 3 answers that will make you exceptional

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 23-Mar-2020 10:30:00

what_is_a_leader_is_the_tip_of_the_icebergWhat is a leader? That's just the tip of the iceberg

This is a question we here repeatedly from participants in our leadership program. Usually it is the ‘tip of the iceberg’ question. What they are really asking is ‘am I a leader’, ‘could I be a leader’ or even ‘how do I become a leader’.

The reason so many people ask this question is because there is so much discrepancies around what leadership really is

This article covers three critical things that identify a person as a leader – but first ….

What is leadership not?

Let’s just get clear on this. We have really strong opinions about what makes a leader. Leadership is not something innate that people are born with. Leadership is not determined by education, status, intelligence, charisma or any of those ‘fixed’ things that we can’t change or influence.

Leadership is nothing to do with who you are or what you look like.

What_is_a_leaderSo what is a leader?

Leadership is all about what you do. A leader is someone who does what leader’s do. That may sound overly simplistic but leadership is all about actions – people who do certain things are leaders (regardless of position) while people who don’t do those things are not leaders (again regardless of position).There is a quote about leadership that we love: a title doesn't make you a leader any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

We like to work on three specific areas that define a person (any person) as a leader:

  • Leader as Model  
  • Leader as Coach
  • Leader as Facilitator 

By the way, this picture is one of a set of six free and inspirational leadership posters you can download here.

Leader as Model

This is all about establishing a high standard. Everything a manager does is amplified. When their team sees them act in certain ways it tells the team two critical things:

  • This is the way we do things around here – this is the standard of behaviour, communication, productivity, performance, etc that is acceptable within this team
  • It is often the model by which the team member develops their skills – I understand that the norm in the team is for a certain style of communication – but how do I do that? Well, I have seen the way the manager does it so that must the right approach.

In other words a manager models both the what and the how: what the standard is but also the way to achieve that standard. A team is highly unlikely to work to a higher standard than the one modelled by the team’s manager.

A critical difference between a leader and a manager is the nature of what they model. Managers manage things – they often set an example in the technical aspects of the job. Leaders lead people – they set their example around interpersonal communication and personal standards and accountability.

what_is_a_leader_-_leader_as_modelTo be a leader, a person needs:

Strong awareness of their own style and behaviours
  • Honest reflection on how that impacts both the people around them and overall performance
  • Willingness to self-manage through strong emotional intelligence

In our work we meet many people including managers at all levels. Many have significant leadership responsibility and some excel in this area - unfortunately some are oblivious to it. We also meet many far more junior supervisors and team members, some of whom are really strong in this area. Our view: those who do well here put a tick in the ‘am I a leader’ box. Those who don’t may be manager but they certainly aren’t leaders regardless of their title.

Leader as Coach

Any person who supervises at least one other person has a significant choice to make. Will they organise and control that person or will they help them fulfil their potential? Again, regardless of title this is a significant distinction between leaders and managers.

Helping people fulfil their potential means making sure they are accountable to a high current standard while also developing them for the future. This is coaching process which can be intimidating for many people – very few leaders have formal coaching skills – the good news is that they don’t need them.

Coaching conducted by a leader is about handling a conversation differently. Instead of telling people what they are doing, aren’t doing, should be doing and need to change, coaching involves asking effective questions that help people realise these things themselves.

what_is_a_leader_-_leader_as_coachAny manager can be an effective coach incorporating these things into their leadership style.

  • Being strong in the Leader as Model area makes coaching people far easier (and with much more credibility). Do as I say but not as I do just doesn’t cut it!
  • Develop an understanding of the way people are motivated and the way the learn and acquire some basic skills, tools and processes – that may take some research and time but it will pay off – or you could follow this blog for regular articles and tips
  • ‘Inquire your people to success’- ask them great questions that help them reflect on how they are going, where they are heading, what they need to adjust, etc

Leader as Facilitator

If you have been around for a while (no-one mentioned grey hair!) you will have experienced many team environments. Some are energetic, exciting and united. They perform at a high level and everyone is highly committed.

Others are hard work. Getting even basic things done is  difficult. There is a lack of energy and commitment and going to work is a drag. There always seems to be an undercurrent of tension or things that aren’t being said.

In reality, most teams sit somewhere between these extremes – and the manager has a major impact on exactly where they sit. You may not be able to create the perfect team but you can certainly make it a positive place with high standards – one where people come to work happily and give their best.

To achieve this, you need to skilfully facilitate the complex interpersonal dynamics that are a result of a diverse group of people coming together to achieve a common goal.

When a manager observes the dynamics in their team, they have some three broad choices – but only one of them makes the manager a leader as well.

  • ‘Let them sort it out for themselves, they are adults and I am busy with reports, meetings, …’
  • Intervene and mandate behaviours, processes and outcomes
  • Facilitate team dynamics such as conflict, problem solving, communication

Becoming a model, a coach and a facilitator

Achieving proficiency in all three of these roles is a journey that leaders should see as ongoing. There is no final destination! The day you stop learning and adapting as a leader is the day you start to decline. We delve deeper into the topics of leader as a model, leader as a facilitator and leader as a coach in short videos which you can access here:

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Leadership posters

photo credit (iceberg): Rita Willaert via photopin cc

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on July 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability. 

Topics: Leadership