Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Leadership Is Not Just for "Leaders"

Leadership in any organization is critical. We normally think of leadership as originating from the designated “leaders” in management in a company, with high level leadership coming from higher levels of management and more specific and detailed leadership associated with specific group activities coming from the appropriate down-the-line management levels. It is important for management at any level to demonstrate leadership, but the reality is that leadership is not just for “leaders”. Leadership actually comes at every level in every organization from official “leaders” all the way down to entry-level employees. Don’t look only to your “leaders” for leadership. When you identify something that needs to be done, deal with the problem directly and show leadership yourself. Somebody has to show leadership; why not you?

So what is leadership? Here are a few quotes that may be useful:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.” 
– Stephen Covey

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” 
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”
– Jim Rohn

While managers must (or should) show leadership in order to be effective, anyone can show leadership to help get a job done. I’ve seen many examples in my career of managers showing no real leadership (and thus demonstrating their ineffectiveness), and of “ordinary” employees showing strong leadership. This is often linked; when a manager doesn’t show leadership, someone reporting to him often fills the vacuum of that poor manager by providing the missing leadership.

Let’s look at leadership from some different perspectives:

Effective leadership vs. ineffective leadership: Effective leadership is demonstrated by someone who understands what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, when it needs to be done, who can do what, and puts together a plan with those involved to get it done in the right timeframe, by the right people, and in the right way. Ineffective leadership is demonstrated by someone claiming to lead (most often a manager), but who does not (or cannot) actually demonstrate real leadership. This person attempts to go through the motions of leadership, but clearly can’t carry it out. Everyone involved readily sees through it and recognizes that this person is in over his head, and simply can’t lead effectively. They recognize that unless something is done (perhaps by one of them) their efforts are doomed.

Real leadership vs. pretend leadership: Real leadership is talking the talk and walking the walk. It is demonstrated by someone who really understands what needs to be done, and is willing to take action, whether or not that person has the title of a “leader”. Pretend leadership is all talk and no action or follow-through. It is demonstrated by someone who claims the title of “leader”, but who doesn’t have the knowledge, will, capability, or desire to actually show leadership or actually lead. 

So what can you do when your “leaders” don’t show leadership? You can bitch and moan about how your “leader” shows no leadership, and wail about your plight and the likely failure of your project, and how unfair your life is. Or, you can do something about it and show the leadership needed to get done what needs to get done, with or without your “leader”. You are a “knowledge worker” (see Knowledge Is Power!) who was hired because you exhibit creativity and the ability to apply your knowledge and intelligence to the job at hand. You are not just a replaceable cog in a wheel, but someone capable of showing leadership when your “leaders” do not. So do it! 

Step up to the plate, not just with words, but with actions. Work with your other “knowledge workers” to do what your “leader” won’t. When you see something that needs doing, do it! When you don’t have the knowledge or expertise to do it, find the person who does, explain what needs to be done and why, and then work with them to get it done. Emphasize the importance of the work, not to you, but to the success of the project. When someone is falling down on the job, provide guidance and understanding to help him or her succeed. Work to benefit the team, not for your own glory. Help others see the light and bring them into the light. Leadership is not just for “leaders”!

Copyright 2012 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. Ugh. I've been bitching at home about things not getting done correctly at my current job; My lead is new to the job and some of the issues are reasonably occurring (no mass incompetence) but can be annoying to those of us on the team. My boyfriend has been stressing to me the importance of going to my management or to the people that can resolve the issues I'm just mindlessly complaining about when I destress from the day at work, and I do not look forward to the awkward conversations so I've been avoiding it (I also previously worked at a company where these kinds of discussions would get you fired; I've been trying to untrain habits developed from being there but it can be a long process).

    He was reiterating this point this evening when I sat down to my computer and lo and behold, here you are making the same one. Thanks, now I'm going to have to be responsible at my workplace.

    No, really, thank you.

    1. Hi Damianne,
      Thanks for your great comments! It's all too common for people to get frustrated with their leadership and their seeming inability to see what's wrong in the workplace and to do something about it. And complaining to leadership, as you said, is potentially fraught with awkward conversations and often with repercussions.

      Taking some leadership yourself can be a way to assert yourself (and take some control of your workplace life), make the problems more obvious to often oblivious management so they can't continue to ignore them, wake up your peers to problems that impact them as well, and get a useful conversation going on how to address problems. If done well, it can also make your management aware of potential in you they may not have been aware of, and that they should encourage to continue. If your management is totally clueless, then they could react negatively. But to some extent, so what? If things are really frustrating, is waking management up a bad thing? Is working under really frustrating conditions a good thing?

      You clearly need to judge the situation rationally and think about the the potential consequences, but I've found that action is almost always better than inaction, and demonstrating leadership is almost always viewed as a positive. If you decide to try it, let me know how it works out, and if there is anything I can do to help. If you decide not to, this can also be a rational choice depending on the situation, and I can fully understand.

      Good luck,


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