Doesher Advisors Guide

June 12, 2012

// Levels of Leaders: Is he or she a leader?

Over the past several years, I have been part of many discussions centered on the question, "Is he or she a leader?"

I have heard more than one person whom I sincerely respect say, "We are all leaders." And I have struggled with that premise. Then my partner (who also happens to be my wife) told me, "I am not a leader" — to which I responded, "Well, you're certainly not a follower, so I think you must be a leader."

According to management expert Peter Drucker, a leader is someone with followers. Author John Maxwell says leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the words "leader" and "leadership" have become over-used and in-vogue terms, just like "robust" and "paradigm." Confusion results when someone who is clearly not a leader is given a leadership role, or when someone who has the potential to be a leader is not qualified to lead in their current position. In fact, I can see how this applies to me — I think I am a leader, but I realize I would not do well in many types of leadership roles.

Our beliefs about leaders and leadership are:

  • Leaders are born (i.e. not everyone is a leader).
  • My partner and I believe and have dedicated the rest of our lives to discovering, encouraging, and mentoring what we call "dormant" leaders. For whatever reason, many born-leaders have not had the good fortune of having a mentor to help them develop their gift of leadership.
  • Great leaders are a work in progress. They are life-long learners, continually developing and honing their leadership skills. The best leaders get better every year.
  • Some leaders are better at leading a small platoon than a whole army, and other leaders are better at leading the army.
  • Not all leaders can lead everything. Call it capacity. Not everyone could lead GE like Jack Welsh or Jeff Immelt.

I'd like to expand on point number 5, and directly address leaders of leaders, or someone trying to figure out if they are a leader.

("Capacity" may or may not be the right word, but I will use it to explain my theory.) Different leaders have different capacities for leading. To illustrate this point of view, I will use a manufacturing company to make my point, drawing on more than 20 years of experience in that industry.

If you know anything about manufacturing, you realize a lot of money is made or lost on the shop floor by machine operators. The operators need a team leader/coach — or, as they call them, production supervisors. When you observe a great supervisor, it is like listening to a jazz quartet. When the supervisor is a great leader, the operators are measurably more productive and they love their jobs. At the same time, most production supervisors — even great ones - would not be able to function as the plant manager. The leadership skills the plant manager must possess are substantially different than what is required of the production supervisor; the plant manager is like an orchestra's conductor, while the production supervisor is more akin to a first-chair musician. Finally, the owner/CEO/general manager of the company is like the president/CEO of an orchestra. They sit (helplessly) in the audience, while the conductor and the musicians perform.

As mentioned above, leaders who can lead an entire army may not be as gifted when it comes to leading a smaller platoon. The challenge is to figure out what type of leader you are. If you are a leader of leaders, your job is to help each leader grow, reach their fullest potential, and operate in a role that fits their capacity and giftedness.

Note: I saw an interesting article, written by Michael Watkins and entitled "The Big Shift - How Managers Become Leaders," in the June 2012 Harvard Business Review. As you know from my April 30th blog, I am not a big fan of labeling people as "managers." However, I still found Watkins' article to be very thought-provoking.

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Seek. Climb. Lead.


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