Being an Executive Doesn't Mean You're a Leader (and Being Junior Doesn't Mean You're Not)

January 02, 2018
01_02_being an executive doesn’t mean you’re a leader

What is leadership? There are countless articles and books on the subject, but one thing is clear – leadership is not bestowed by a title. A title makes you a boss, but it doesn’t make you a leader.

People follow bosses because they have to, but they follow leaders because they want to.

And you don’t have to oversee direct reports to act – and be perceived – as a leader. Over a two-and-a-half-decade career, I’ve worked for and with a lot of people, some of whom I’d put squarely in the “leadership” category. They have inspired me, motivated me, and behaved in ways that are worth emulating. Certain characteristics made a strong impression on me. I have tried to incorporate these traits in my own behavior, and I find that the better I’m able to do these things, the stronger my professional relationships become and the more we are able to collaborate productively to achieve success.

In my experience, leaders:

…are human, not hierarchical. Everybody within an organization plays a part in the success or failure of that organization. Everybody. And each has knowledge gained through their specific perspective that could contribute valuable insight to fix problems or improve results. Some people with a “big boss” mentality only listen to – or even talk to – people based on their seniority, but that’s not leadership. If you want to be a leader, you need to get over yourself and treat people as people, not as titles. And that goes in both directions. Don’t be afraid to speak to someone more senior just because they are “above” you on the corporate ladder. (If you’re discouraged from doing so based solely on hierarchy, that’s a big red flag.)

…understand that they’re there to support the team, not vice versa. It’s about what they can do to help others do their jobs better, not what others can do for them. They understand the big picture of what the team is trying to accomplish, and they know each of the individual team members – their strengths and weaknesses, how they process information, how they interact with others, when they struggle and when they shine, etc. They use their experience, knowledge, and status to unlock the potential of their employees and achieve their goals by removing obstacles, providing guidance, cultivating skills, and more.

…focus on the destination, not optics and accolades. True leaders are driven by accomplishing the goals at hand, not just appearing to do so. Often, this requires being able to navigate a political environment – without being political themselves or dragging their team into political nonsense. It’s never too early to acquire this skill.  

…compete with the external competition, not with the internal team. They foster collaboration and teamwork aligned to a common goal. Smarts, productivity, and creativity aren’t a zero-sum game – others can be successful without making you less so. That’s true no matter what role you play.

…value and align to others’ strengths, not their own. They understand that a my-way-or-the-highway approach simply doesn’t work. Forcing everyone to operate on your terms doesn't make you smart and powerful, it just makes you stubborn (and probably a jerk). Good leaders know their weaknesses. They don’t devalue those areas, but rather look to fill the gaps with others who have the needed skills and expertise. And then they let them do their job.

…will stretch you, but won’t break you. A good leader is a good mentor and coach. They may be a little tough on you, but it’s because they know your potential better than you do. They’ll never ask you to do something they don’t think you can do, though it might feel that way sometimes. Even if you don’t have direct reports, you can encourage and cultivate potential in your peers.

…aren’t afraid to ask questions or admit they don’t know something. They know that it doesn’t make them look dumb. In fact, it’s a sign of intelligence. You can’t get smarter, if you don’t admit there’s room for you to be smarter. 

There are many famous examples of leaders who don’t exhibit these characteristics. (I wonder how many, if any, applied to Steve Jobs.) But the famous examples are also often exceptions. Whether you are in a position of power or just starting your career, you can deliberately cultivate your own leadership potential.

A title makes you a boss, but it doesn’t make you a leader.

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