Being a leader is about actions not about position.

When I run leadership modules for students, we usually kick off with an exploration of what is meant by leadership and we always end up with something like “having people who follow you”. And I think in a sense this is right – probably ‘follow’ sounds a bit passive but I am more or less OK with it given that the academic literature on leadership commonly uses the term. However, there is usually then a disagreement about how leadership is similar and/or different to management. It’s an old debate but one that does need to be revisited every now and then. So let me kick off this short debate with this: management is about running things. So if you have to do annual appraisals, arrange shifts, check people’s work, follow up when people are sick and so on, you are a manager. And you also need to motivate, provide direction, stand up for your team. And encourage, set an example and defend your people.

Which of these is management and which is leadership? Actually for the point I am making today I am working from a different angle. I am saying that all of the above are true when you are leading a team and some of it is management and some leadership (and some can be both). But at least some of these tasks are given to you because you are a Line Manager. You may think of yourself as facilitating peoples’ work, supporting them to be the best they can be or making sure they have everything they need to succeed, but you are their boss. And you can never escape this. Not even going for a drink after work, you are still the boss.

If you have no line management responsibility then you are not the boss. In which case, surely you cannot possibly be a leader? Funnily enough I find myself in this position at the moment and I know a lot of others are – we have some sort of professional responsibility but this does not extend to being a boss. But I firmly believe that a large part of my job is to be a leader. I see many professionals with little or no line management responsibilities but who still need to provide direction and be professional. I was having this conversation recently with senior hospital doctors many of whom had little or no line management responsibilities. And yet they had opted to attend a programme that had “leadership” in its title.

I would go further than this and say that anyone can be a leader. There are so many opportunities for everyone to show leadership in their daily life – every time you see a colleague. Every interaction with a person who might come to your organisation (customer, client, patient). All of these small exchanges no matter how fleeting are chances for you to show leadership. It could be the smile and “good morning” or a short chat in the queue for coffee or taking time to ask how someone is after a bereavement. Even people who feel powerless can role model behaviour, has the chance to show how they believe things should be done through their everyday actions.

I have to admit my thinking on this comes directly from my (brief) army service where setting a personal example is in the culture from day one. And whilst not everyone is enamoured of the military way life, I have never seen better examples of this approach since I left. And I think a great example of this is a quote by decorated veteran Brian Wood.

Screen grab from Brian Wood MC talking about leadership as influence.

The fear of the new

I posted a selfie on Twitter last week from my last lecture of the term. I don’t usually do this but it was a special occasion; I am changing jobs and my new role doesn’t currently have me scheduled to deliver mainstream teaching. This may well change but, as it stands, after nearly 20 years that might well have been my last lecture. The significance of this is that I have built my career on being able to do certain things and (in all modesty) delivering engaging lectures has been something I have been known for all this time. And now I will not have this. So realising the change that is coming has left me in an unsettled frame of mind. I am very much looking forward to my new job, but part of me is looking back and taking stock.

I know this is natural and (mostly) healthy thing to do. We are creatures of habit and we like familiar things around us; we create our own little world at work consisting of the route to the office, people we greet in the morning, where we buy our coffee, the corridors we walk down. So even though we sometimes find that routine makes us bored, it is also comforting. When these routines are broken, it is unsettling, disturbing and can even trigger quite severe reactions.

On the other hand, we all change, all of the time. We learn new skills and hopefully get better at things through experience. More to the point, the role of the leader is to encourage change or else they probably aren’t really leading. But my current frame of mind has brought the reminder that when changes affect an individual, there is something very similar to a “fight or flight” response and I have remembered how uncomfortable this can be. For the person who has decided that a change is needed (the leader or manager), it is easy to forget the impact changes can have on those on whom it is imposed and leaders should remember this. It comes down to one of the absolute basics of great management – empathy. “What would this look like to the other person?”. It is not sympathy “poor things”, but a hard-headed analysis of how things appear from the other side of the desk which can then inform how you approach it. This is at the core of persuasion and influence.

So my point in this blog is a reminder to think about how everything you do will appear to the people concerned – especially when these appear to be minor changes to you.