What the Heck is Leadership?
Leadership and management are different things
It’s all about the three Cs of character
A leader is someone who inspires people to take a risk. A manager helps people work together. Leadership and management are not the same thing.
Between 2009 and 2014, US businesses spent $50 billion—billion—on leadership development. But are we now flooded with great leaders? No. Leadership is first about character, about courage, compassion and curiosity. It's not about “soft skills,” industry knowledge or even management ability. It can't be learned in a workshop. Not everyone can be a leader, but we can learn to surround ourselves with great leaders.
Larry S., a healthcare CEO, demonstrated the character of his leadership when replacing his hospital building, a $60 million decision. He showed courage in taking the risk, compassion by providing his community and staff a state-of-the-art facility, and curiosity in leading the design team to a sustainable and cost-effective solution. They won the 2015 Guardian of Excellence Award®.
So if that's leadership, what is a manager?
Leader vs. manager
Let’s get this over with once for all: A leader is someone who inspires people to take a risk; a manager is someone who helps people work together. Now, many people who are leaders are also managers, and many managers have some leadership ability. But that does not mean they’re the same thing. Leaders don’t have to be good managers. Steve Jobs and FDR come to mind.
No, Hitler was not a leader
Hitler was not a leader; he was a tyrant, achieving selfish ends through lies, force and terror. Leadership has a moral dimension, so let’s reject any definition of leader that includes tyrants. A bully is a kind of tyrant, and we’ve all met them. Yes, they can drive organizations to big things, but always for a selfish purpose. And when they leave, the organization falls apart because their energy is gone.
The heart of leadership: the 3Cs of character
Leadership is first and foremost about strength of character, having the 3Cs of courage, compassion and curiosity. We all have these traits, but leadership forces us to explore and develop them:
- Courage: A courageous leader is decisive. They are ambitious for their organization, undaunted by risks and obstacles. They face hard facts and admit their mistakes and flaws. Churchill said, You must look at the facts because they surely look at you.
- Compassion: Compassionate leaders focus on why the organization’s work matters. They apply the Golden Rule to all they say and do. But they’re not pushovers: they know caring for staff, customers and the community takes strength.
- Curiosity: A curious leader is innovative: they innately want to learn new things, see new connections and are driven to improve. They want to know how other people solve problems.
Character is the wellspring of vision
Courage, compassion and curiosity combine to shape a leader’s vision. Their compassion drives them to serve their community and employees, and it’s compassion that makes them aware of what’s needed, to what their goal should be. Then, with the curiosity to find a way and the courage to face the facts and risks, they get it done. Secretary of State James Baker III said, A leader is someone who knows what to do—and then does it.
It’s the leader who inspires people to take a risk, like fulfilling an ambitious plan or tackling a big project. The risk can be a single outcome—to put an American on the moon—or to transform a country, like Aung San Soo Kyi in Myanmar. Inspiration requires enormous sensitivity and compassion, to understand, shape and articulate a group’s deep needs. They know that what really drives their people is to work happily with others to make the world a better place.
Communicating with no jargon in sight
Leaders can clearly articulate their answers to the three core questions about plans and projects:
- Why are we doing this?
- Where are we going?
- How will we get there?
Of course leaders must have great communications skills—clarity is everything. If you don’t like to write, study great writers. If you don’t like to make speeches, do it anyway. If meetings make you uncomfortable, bring your own inspiring ideas. You’ll go nowhere if you can’t convey your vision.
Leadership can only be forged in experience
Leadership can’t be learned from books, in a classroom or on line, but it can be uncovered and developed. Chief executives know they need to develop new leaders continuously, so they find the projects and assignments that reveal leadership potential. They then provide the mentoring and support so precious leadership lessons aren’t lost.
One of the delights of the top job is seeing leadership pop up in unexpected places. A crisis often reveals who the real leader is—perhaps even to their own surprise. It’s not important if you’re a leader—at first.
99% of leadership literature is about becoming a leader, but the first reason to think clearly about leadership is how to choose them. Our success depends entirely on the leaders we choose. At work, they’re our bosses, customers, vendors, and boards of directors.
List six people upon whose leadership you depend. Do they have the courage, compassion and curiosity to “know what needs to be done and then do it”? Do you know what their vision is? Do they inspire you? If you want to improve as a leader—and we can all improve—fight for a project that activates your own courage, compassion and curiosity. If you take a risk, who knows? Maybe others will turn to you to lead them.