Saturday, October 12, 2013

You probably want to become a better leader or to further develop your leadership skills or the leadership skills of other people... But who really serve as leaders and what constitutes leadership? Your bottom line answers to these questions will depend on which of the faces of leadership you choose... And the face you choose will necessarily dictate your approach to taking on the responsibilities associated with leadership. In fact, if you make the wrong choice, you might convince yourself that you'll never become a leader. At the very least, you could focus on developing a set of skills associated with titles, but that don't really fit with functional leadership.

When asked, most people agreed that leadership generally means "... going out ahead to show the way" (Greenleaf, 1977). They also agreed that organizational leaders include all people who employ leadership. But it turns out that these same people appeared to apply these definitions differently...

Awhile back, a member of a leadership group within LinkedIn asked fellow members to identify the differences between leadership and management.  His request generated over 2000 responses over the course of a year.  These responses most often fit into one or the other of three categories of leadership. These categories or faces included leadership by hierarchical positions, leadership by operational roles, and leadership by functional behaviors.

Those who referred to leadership by positions, typically described leaders as those people at the pennicles of their organizations, mostly in the various ranks of chief executives. Some in this group also suggested that while leaders serve at the tops of their organizations, managers serve in lower positions, but as supervisors over other members who occupy even lower positions. To most of the people in this group, leadership behaviors included whatever behaviors leaders engage in -- simply because leaders employ those behaviors.

Others who referred to leadership by operational roles, typically explained leadership as those functional roles, in organizations, in which supervisors relate to people; as opposed to management roles, wherein supervisors relate to organizational systems.  For example, they generally suggested that people MANAGE projects, programs, portfolios and similar functions; while they LEAD human development, organizational learning, employee empowerment, and similar efforts.  Therefore, supervisors in leadership roles perform leadership behaviors associated with directing people, while supervisors in management roles perform management behaviors associated with controlling systems.

Those who promoted leadership by functional behaviors, typically described leadership as activities related to providing direction, regardless of peoples' positions or roles. Some in this category suggested that the employment of leadership primarily relates to needs in organizations for development, innovation, creativity, ingenuity, and new directions; where the employment of management relates more to standardization, maintenance, efficiency, effectiveness, and the status quo of organizations.

Where leaders, defined by positions or roles, typically continue in those positions or roles for indefinite periods; functional leadership exists for given, limited periods of time -- directly and uniquely tied to the associated contextual opportunities and challenges. Of course, those who lead from positions and roles use leadership by functional behaviors, as well. It's just that not everything they do counts as leadership and they usually use other forms of directing, like management, when situations don't call for leadership. Additionally, those who lead without regard to rank or station actually take on leadership roles, just not necessarily formal positional roles, with titles like CEO or Vice President or functional roles, with titles like project manager or team leader.

Finally, the only appropriate times for people to lead, using functional behaviors include: (a) when no validated and standardized procedures exist to answer the specific opportunities or challenges facing their group; (b) when selecting the appropriate, validated, standardized procedures to use; and (c) when stakeholders decide that they desire improvements in efficiency or effectiveness. Otherwise, the people "taking charge" should more appropriately use one of the other forms of directing -- probably management.

Remember, these three "faces" just reflect what people have said about leaders and leadership. All three descriptions represent truth, as different people understand it. Because differences exist between these categories, a lot of what one group of people will refer to as leadership might represent something totally different from what other people consider as leadership. Therefore, it makes sense for everyone to know ahead of time, which of the faces they consider real.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.



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