Leadership, Leader, and Leading…What’s it All About?


Recently I was reading a post and comments on a Facebook group I’m in. A member of the group posed the question, “What is the difference between leadership and being a leader?” From the articles I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to, courses I’ve attended, and discussions I’ve had, I think there is value in expanding that question to, “What’s the difference between leadership, leader, and leading?” Over time I’ve come to understand that these words have very subjective meanings and are defined from a variety of perspectives. This question is often joined with others such as those nagging questions of, “What’s the difference between leadership and management?” and “How is being a leader different that being a manager?”

There are so many mantras, frameworks, and “top ten” lists that it can be confusing to really get oriented in this realm of leadership. And it is important to get mentally oriented so you can translate your beliefs, values, and attitudes about your understanding of leadership into action that makes things happen. I think it may be useful to start by reframing the question from the perspective of other disciplines. For example, “What’s the difference between football, a football player, and playing a game of football?” or “What’s the difference between the practice of medicine, a doctor, and performing surgery?” Let’s start with trying to get our heads wrapped around the word leadership.

In my mind, and as defined by social scientists and organizational psychologists, leadership is the practice (some call it an art) or using influence to pursue and achieve your professional and personal goals and objectives. Influence can be captured as your capacity or ability to be a compelling force or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions of others. Just as with the practice of law, medicine, or the profession of arms, the practice of leadership requires investment in building and honing the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to be successful in wielding your influence. There is science to be learned, tools to acquire, and experiences to build upon. One must understand the value and use of power bases, influence tactics, communication skills, and how to apply situational leadership.  These leadership skills and activities are weaved into the daily activities of the trade or profession you are a part of. For example, doctors performing surgery influence their team in the operating room, and lawyers influence juries and so forth. So, distilling “leadership” down into “influence” gives us a simple way of understanding that in our leadership role, we work to influence a variety of people who can help us achieve our responsibilities and goals.

So, what or who is a leader? Is it a formally assigned role or is it a natural thing? Let’s start by reframing the word “leader” into “influencer.” With this approach you can see that unlike other disciplines which require positional authority (you must be certified to be a lawyer or doctor) anyone can use leadership tools to be a “compelling force” or “have effects” on the outcomes of people and organizations. In leadership science there are those who are formally assigned positions of responsibility, authority, and accountability. These roles typically have management responsibilities with them but with their role comes positional power (the boss) and the need to use good leadership skills to positively achieve results. Although this person is formally viewed as “the” leader of the organization or team, your lack of “formal” positional authority doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader in that team as well. There are many instances where “natural” leaders have more influence on successful (or not so successful) team outcomes than the formally assigned leader/manager. And, we also have influence on our families, friends, and other social organizations we are a part of regardless of our “formal” role in those social structures.

The strength of your “leader” value lies in your ability to use the leadership skills I’ve described above regardless of your formal position. Each engagement with your boss, peer, or teammates is a leadership interaction—your use of influence to compel or sway some outcome. Don’t let the lack of formal assignment limit your thinking about your ability to wield influence on things. But always work to make sure those interactions are done with good intent towards helping meet organizational objectives and shaping positive team attitudes.

Finally, we come to leading. Leading is putting your leadership knowledge, experience, and tools to action—the action of influencing. Leading is harnessing your power bases and applying them through influence tactics, communication skills, and your knowledge of situational leadership with individual and team interactions. Again, these leading activities blend into your management activities associated with planning, organizing, directing, and controlling. For example, you influence people in the planning stage when you communicate a compelling vision or use the “why” to generate buy-in and energy. You are leading in the organizing stage when you form and use coalitions to acquire needed resources or conduct training on the skills your team will need to complete the project or mission. You are leading in the directing stage when do things like conducting pre-evolution briefs and inspiring your team into action. And you are leading in the controlling phase as you supervise, coach, and communicate to leadership the unpopular news of where unplanned changes should occur.

I hope this mental framework offers you a way to think about the question, “What is the difference between leadership and being a leader?” What are your thoughts? How do you reconcile the difference between leader, leadership, and leading? Until next time, keep working to be a sturdy, versatile, and credible leader who makes a positive difference in your personal and professional life!


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