Lies about Leadership

Which lies are you believing?
Ben and Jeremy read and interacted with the same article on leadership, published in Entrepreneur Magazine. Read both their perspectives on common lies business owners believe about being leaders.

Benjamin Wills

Lie: All managers are leaders.

This fallacy in the business world was addressed in the recent Entrepreneur article. The worker to manager to business leader career progression is the typical, or maybe mythical, career path, but the truth is that different people excel at different levels of this progression. Unfortunately, salary caps only increase as one continues up the chain. All too often, the great manager assumes a leadership position and, at best, does a mediocre job; often, he may even perform below average.

In contrast to the Entrepreneur article, I do not believe that management skills are a subset of leadership skills. Just as not all managers are leaders, not all leaders are managers. I believe management and leadership exist as two different skill sets.

The manager is tasked with the present and past.

He concentrates on the tasks to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, and must account for what work has happened in the past. Most of these management skills find their application in corralling employees into the position and direction of the leaders’ vision, achieving the daily steps towards a goal, and recording and accounting for expected improvements in the business situation, such as employee efficiency. The manager is much like a shepherd – the guide in the middle of the herd that is sensitive to the needs of all the members and moving them towards greener pastures.

The leader, on the other hand, is tasked with the present and future.

He concentrates on understanding where the group is currently, and where that group needs to be in the future. Most of these leadership skills find their application in being in front of the employees blazing a new trail. Often the leader is less concerned with the individual and more concerned about the group. The leader typically should not be caught in the day-to-day, but should be mentoring the managers and communicating the vision so the managers can take on the day-to-day tasks.

I base this theory of manager versus leader on personal experience. 

I have to admit that I have never been a very good manager. It takes me a large amount of mental and emotional energy to keep my own day-to-day priorities at even a minimum level of order, let alone those of employees. I feel much more naturally able to see and architect the future of where I (we?) want the company to move. With moving toward our future as my passion, my focus is on the abstract group rather than the individual. As a visionary, I have comparatively little regard for the past and present. Maybe this tendency in leaders is why they seem so impersonal?

By contrast, Jeremy is able to keep the day-to-day activity for himself and many others in orderly priority as he works, and he naturally interacts well with people. Having these complimentary skill sets has definitely brought us an advantage; as business executives, we haven't had to choose between leadership and management skills at the head of our business.

Can great managers also be great leaders, or vice versa?

Sure, it is possible, but really, these are two different skill sets, often associated with different personalities. Because the route from team member to manager to leader is so common in business, I contend that there are great leaders whose careers have been stalled at the manager level because of their mediocre managerial skills. Conversely, there are many mediocre leaders that were great managers but took promotions for the better personal benefits.

The clear follow-up question is this: How do you reward employees at their greatest position of impact, without having to promote them into responsibilities that may not use their skills and personality to their full potential, or be in the company's best interest?


Jeremy Wills

Lie: Leaders always have the right answers.

People can mistakenly believe that leaders possess the answers, are confident in which direction to take, and display courage in every course of action as they lead their company. The truth is quite the opposite: when it comes to finding answers and making decisions, I’ve learned it can be a lonely and scary road at times. The best leaders possess a similar key trait — they ultimately equip their people to go through the decision making process on their own, and then to take ownership of their decisions.

For the leader, it starts with picking the people they believe are capable of making the tough decisions.

Teddy Roosevelt said that the best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. In my past experience as an employee, when I was handed the responsibility to accomplish a task, but never had the authority to make the final decision, I was frustrated at best, and completely deflated eventually.

At AIE, our philosophy is to give employees both power and responsibility, coupled with a large dose of accountability

During my years as an employee, I remember walking into a management meeting with plans to discuss a major decision to be made within our company. As I was the newest on the management team, the owner quickly turned to me as we all took our seats and said, “I’ve already made my decision, but what do you think we should do about it?” Without hesitating (for better or worse) I replied, “If the decision is already made, why does my opinion matter?

I’m sure that wasn’t the best response, but it was the most honest. I felt I had valuable input that would help influence the decision. More importantly, I thought the collective experience in the room would help bring about the best decision — or, as Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” In that moment, I was discouraged. 

True leadership fosters leadership potential in others.

The leader identifies the right people, is a facilitator of their growth, empowers them as they hand over responsibility, all while holding them accountable for the results.

This pattern of transitional leadership allows for more decisions of consequence to be made, and subsequently greater impact within the organization.