What Leaders Really Do A common misconception about leadership

What Leaders Really Do
A common misconception about leadership is that it’s the province of a chosen few. Some think that
it’s just a matter of possessing certain quasi-mystical traits—like charisma and vision—which you
either have or you don’t. The fact of the matter is that leadership skills are not innate. They can be
acquired and honed.
In order to understand what leaders do, it is important to understand the difference between
management and leadership. They are two distinct and complementary systems of action.
Management involves coping with complexity; leadership, coping with change. Managing requires
bringing order and predictability to a situation, while leading requires adapting to changing
circumstances—an increasingly important skill in today’s volatile and competitive business
Management Versus Leadership
Planning and budgeting
Setting a direction
Organizing and staffing
Aligning people
Controlling and problem solving Motivating and inspiring
Planning and budgeting versus setting a direction
The aim of management is to obtain well-defined, orderly results. Therefore, managers engaged in
the planning and budgeting process typically:
Craft specific targets or goals for the future (typically short-term)
Establish detailed steps for achieving the desired targets
Allocate the resources required to accomplish them
On the other hand, leadership’s function is to enable change. Setting the direction for that change is
of paramount importance. While there’s nothing magical about this kind of work, it is more inductive
and intuitive than planning and budgeting, and does not result in detailed plans. Setting a direction
for change requires leaders to:
Gather a range of data and look for patterns, relationship, and linkages
Develop a vision of the future (often the distant future)
Craft the strategies necessary for achieving that vision
Organizing and staffing versus aligning people
Organizing is a management process that, at its core, involves creating systems that enable people
to implement plans as precisely and efficiently as possible. The processes of organizing and staffing
require managers to:
Choose a job hierarchy and justify reporting relationships
Staff the positions with the appropriate people
Provide training for those who need it
Communicate plans to the workforce
Decide how much authority to delegate, and to whom
The organizing and staffing processes critical to effective management illustrate the complex
problem of designing a well-functioning system. However, its leadership counterpart, aligning people,
is not a design issue, but rather a communications challenge.
To align people to a vision, a leader must:
Solicit input and discussion from a wide range of people
Help people to comprehend a vision of an alternative future
Get them to believe in and become energized by this vision once it is understood
While organizing people to fulfill a short-term plan is difficult, getting a large number of people from
inside and outside the company first to believe in an alternative future, and then to take initiatives
based on this shared vision, is often even more challenging.
Controlling and problem solving versus motivating and inspiring
Processes like controlling activities and solving problems are mechanisms managers put in place to
make it easy for people to complete their daily jobs. Managers use these processes to:
Efficiently compare the behavior of the system they’ve organized and staffed with the original
plan and budget
If the comparison reveals a divergence from the original course, take the corrective actions
necessary to get the plan back on track
The leadership processes of motivating and inspiring are quite different. Motivating and inspiring
energizes people not by pushing or pulling them in the right direction, but by satisfying basic human
needs for achievement—a sense of belonging, recognition, self-esteem, and having control over
one’s life.
Effective leaders motivate in a variety of ways. For example, they:
Articulate a vision in a manner that stresses the values of their audience
Involve people in deciding how to achieve the shared vision
Support employees’ efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback, and role
Recognize and reward success
Management skills are essential. But in response to an ever-changing economic and social
marketplace, managers are increasingly being called upon to be leaders as well. As a result, the
ability to lead—that is, identify a vision, align people to it, and motivate them to achieve it—has
become even more critical for today’s managers