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.