Define a Leader in Less Time Than It Takes to Google It…
Without Googling it, what’s your definition of a leader?
In your experience, does leader status seem like a nod of acknowledgment after some professional development courses have been completed, after some arbitrary boxes have been checked?
Or, is a promotion to a leadership position the next logical step after guiding a team toward a shared goal?
And, if “leading” is often used as a synonym for “managing” or “supervising,” what message is communicated when workers (followers) are encouraged to become leaders themselves, disregarding personality, career goals, or lifestyle?
Is moving into a leadership role the only option for a worker whose career may have plateaued?
After all, a promotion to a leadership position often equates to more pay, an impressive title, and certainly more status and authority.
Really, who wouldn’t want to lead?
Of course, there are very definable differences between all players in the workplace, differences that amount to more than academic, semantic hair-splitting.
History and Modernity Have a Say
Historically, employees have tipped the scales in favor of a leader’s title or status, instead of the individual’s skills or competencies. This may have worked in the past, but the current employee is no longer impressed by status alone and realizes management is not leadership; leadership is not management. A mere title carries little weight, but experience and competency do.
Modern leadership, though, does not closely examine the important reciprocal partnership between an organization’s leaders and followers. Instead, too often, organizations foist leadership development on employees who aren’t interested in exploring that particular career path.
Well-meaning organizations ask that an employee’s reach exceed their grasp, without stopping to consider if the employee is interested in or capable of reaching that far in the first place.
As a result, supervisors and managers become frustrated, overwhelmed, and burnt-out and may view an employee as an unambitious slacker content to perform the same tasks with no interest in “upward mobility.”
Leaders, managers, and supervisors become disheartened by their perception of an employee’s lack of motivation and disengagement when, paradoxically, this situation calls for more heart and empathy.
Let Me Tell You A Story…
Perhaps a personal anecdote might clarify my point.
Last week, I bumped into a former coworker. Bill and I had worked at a local grocery store for 12 years, fileting and de-boning in the store’s meat department. Comparatively speaking, we had little difference in job title, duties, hourly wage, or years with the company. Our only difference being, owing to his experience as a butcher at his own shop, Bill was also a savvy small business owner.
Naturally, after working together for over a decade, I began to read Bill’s moods. Most noticeably, he wore disappointment and frustration on his apron, especially when a meeting with our manager had not gone well. Recently named the meat department’s manager, Stephanie was unfamiliar with our group and didn’t know the first thing about a ribeye or London broil, a cleaver or a butcher knife.
She’d spent most of her time stocking shelves and working in the frozen foods section – worlds away from the meat department’s strict packaging and sanitation protocols. As for her ability to manage a meat counter, Stephanie was coming in cold, literally and figuratively. Her appointment as our manager was confusing and, we all suspected, based on nothing more than her friendship with our former manager.
Stephanie’s inadequacies were apparent every day, but never more than during regular team meetings and one-on-ones meant to allow employees to raise concerns, make innovative suggestions, or have questions answered. With me, she had an inappropriate tendency to turn our one-on-ones toward her personal life. I learned about everything from her car troubles to her marriage issues, her weekend plans to her favorite wine.
With Bill, she was all business, but in an intimidating, authoritative way. Constantly, she would pressure him to consider a leadership path, to explore courses, take some classes, mingle at a few networking events. After all, he’d been with the company for a long time, doing the same work, so leadership was a logical next step.
The Bill I knew, though, was a quiet man who just wanted to do his job. He was naturally opposed to Stephanie’s suggestions that he seek out a mentor and join a leadership development program. Always, she would argue, with his experience as a butcher and businessman, surely he was missing out on an excellent chance to advance his career.
Finally, after months of frustrating one-on-ones, Bill told me that Stephanie made him feel uncomfortable and anxious, that her pressure made him hate his job, made him dread the thought of coming to work the next morning. Often, he confided, a week prior to their meeting he’d hatch a complicated plan to have the meeting rescheduled or canceled. “Anyway, what’s the use?” he asked. “She just doesn’t get it. I’m happy where I am. I have no desire to lead!”
“She just doesn’t get it. I’m happy where I am. I have no desire to lead!”Bill the Butcher
And usually, with that, he’d whack a chicken leg off and we’d move on with the day.
In Bill’s experience, Stephanie’s insistence on leadership development failed to empower or motivate. Her enthusiastic encouragement continually missed the mark and was inconsiderate of Bill’s personality, ambitions, and his definition of job satisfaction.
Why did her approach come up short? For one, she lacked the experience, knowledge, and authority to be in a management position. Perhaps, as a result of this insecurity, she managed inconsistently. To some employees, Stephanie was a cool confidant and best friend while, to others, she was an authoritative parent who ruled and micromanaged. Neither management approach would fly with me, with Bill, or with two other employees who quit after I’d left.
Furthermore, Stephanie failed to understand Bill as an individual. She failed to recognize his anxiety, discomfort, and changes in mood and body language. Given Bill’s past experience, she assumed he would be interested in leading a team and continually gave him the hard sell. She lacked, to quote Daniel Goleman, an emotional competency “attuned to the feelings of those we deal with.” The competent, emotionally observant manager would have recognized Bill’s strengths and his contributions to the team’s success, while also considering his weaknesses and potential (or lack thereof) as a leader.
Of course, we should also contemplate Bill’s role in this conflict. Had he communicated openly and honestly? Did he ever come out and say he wasn’t interested in being a leader, or did he communicate passive-aggressively? Did Stephanie have all of the facts she needed before assuming he’d be a successful leader? After all, her guess that his experience as a small business owner would make him a natural leader isn’t an illogical leap. However, in my opinion, the Bill I knew would not have been an effective leader. After knowing him for 12 years and understanding what he expected from his job (consistency, above all else), I would have predicted nothing but stress and unhappiness for him and his followers.
Also, from our conversations, I eventually learned that Bill’s small business was, indeed, very, very small. “That business was all me,” he’d once mentioned. “I was a team of 1, working out of my garage.” Surely leading yourself was much, much different than leading and relating to a team made up of different personalities, work ethics, and complex workplace relationships more than anything else. For now, let’s focus on leadership’s relational nature.
Leadership v. Management
Unlike management’s focus on procedure and protocol, meaningful leadership is an interaction between at least one follower and one leader. It is a selfless transaction that encourages actions to better each employee and the overall team. The competent leader strives to go beyond merely knowing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the team and instead seeks to discover – and grow – relationships between followers and between the leader and the follower.
Leadership requires doing things that don’t scale (emotional labor), engaging with conflict (leaving a comfort zone), and initiating changes and innovation (not being afraid of failure). “More than any other member of the team, the leader must be comfortable with the prospect of making a decision that ultimately turns out to be wrong.” Leadership requires grit and grows resiliency. Also, as in Bill’s case, the best followers recognize they are not supposed to be leaders, just like the best leaders recognize they are not meant to be managers. We don’t have to search far and wide for stories about ineffective leaders that sabotaged, misguided, and confused even the best team.
Earlier, I mentioned my run-in with Bill happened last week. Since then, I’ve thought about our conversation every day, with a noticeable uptick in my own anxiety and frustration each time.
- Why was the drama of a company I’d chosen to leave still affecting me so viscerally?
- What hold did it have over me?
- If it was still upsetting me so much, should I have left in the first place?
- Could my departure have been prevented or avoided altogether?
After all, when I walked out, my experience and knowledge went with me. And, to be fair, did my own decisions and communication make me a good, honest follower who spoke up before I packed up? I didn’t have the answers, but I did know that, yes, everything that went bad could have been avoided.
To begin with, in order to better understand an individual employee’s emotions (mine, in this case) and the collective emotions and mindset of an informed, increasingly empathetic workforce, organizations must undergo a massive course correction.
To hire, manage, and lead with heart, organizations must re-train themselves to view the leader/follower relationship with empathy and renewed compassion that respects and supports.
To work with heart, all players must begin to reconnect with the basic, inherent humanity of the workplace. (This connection, by the way, must start long before an employee gets any substantial amount of time in with the company. Consider, for a moment, the aloof impersonality of today’s internet job searches and automated resume screening software – a frustrating, demoralizing process if ever there was one!)
Organizations that realize a change is needed are wise to seek professional unbiased leadership training if they plan to take the wheel and change direction. Training team leaders on conflict resolution, engagement, and leading with heart sets the stage for a meaningful dialogue that many organizations desperately need, whether they realize it or not. Only through immersive education and training will leaders learn to anticipate and avoid conflict and, when necessary, address an existing conflict and agree on a resolution.
Proper training equips leadership and management with the tools needed to anticipate powerful situations that, if ignored, will erode employee morale and pride. In the case of established, deep-seated issues, training offers proactive, effective leadership and conflict resolution skills that address issues before quitting becomes an employee’s only option. Only through implementing proven techniques and improving communication, can leaders gain the traction necessary to resolve conflicts and avoid new struggles altogether.
As Fate Would Have It…
As fate would have it, Bill and I would cross paths twice as I wrote this post – the first time, last week, while we filled our tanks at a local gas station; the second, less serendipitously, as he placed a particularly choice ribeye in the meat department’s case. “I’ll take that,” I said, laughing, as I snagged the steak from his hand.
We went on to make idle, pleasant conversation until the topic inevitably turned back to the store. With more in common with Corporate America than the humble Mom & Pop General Store of its distant past, Bill said the company had announced a sweeping, public rebranding.
Internally, the company’s executives had launched a campaign to reinvent everything from its culture to its restrooms. All levels of the company’s hierarchy would be scrutinized, from CEO to manager to the newest employee.
Bill stepped closer. “Rumor has it,” he said, lowering his voice, “we’re looking for a new manager, someone who knows meat. Know of anybody like that?”
I said, yes, as a matter of fact, I knew just the right person for the job and made my way to the frozen food section.
 Sorrells, Jesan. My Boss Doesn’t Care… (New York: HSCT Publishing, 2019), 43-44
 Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantom Dell Publishing, 2006), 149.
 Sorrells, Jesan. My Boss Doesn’t Care… (New York: HSCT Publishing, 2019), 43-44
 Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 212