Leadership is shown by influencing people to change direction. But what forms of influence count as leadership? How does it differ from managerial influence?
The answer to these questions depends on our definition of leadership and management. The widely accepted concept of leadership associates it with occupying a position of authority in a group.
This model of leadership doesn't imply that position alone makes anyone a leader. You can't be a leader just by being in a role but all leaders (in conventional theory) occupy authoritative roles within groups, formally or informally.
Such (positional) leaders have a particular purpose – to achieve and maintain high performance amongst all who report to them. Leaders thus influence people to both change direction and work harder.
Leadership as defined here is very different and sharply differentiated from management. Managers have total responsibility for getting things done through people and only they occupy roles of authority in groups.
We define leadership as showing the way for others, either by advocating a better way or by example. Management is defined as achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all available resources.
As here conceived, leadership is not a role but rather an occasional act of influence. This narrows leadership's scope of action (ALL decisions are made by managers if leadership is influence) but enables us to account for a wider range of leadership acts, such as:
- Bottom up leadership – when a front line employee convinces management to adopt a new product or process.
- Green leadership – shown at a distance to groups that the leader may not even know let alone be in charge of.
- Market leadership – where companies lead their competitors by example.
Leadership so defined cannot make decisions for people, as should be obvious from the above three examples. It can only influence a change in direction.
To better understand leadership influence, let's start by exploring managerial influence. Managers can also show leadership of course, not only downward but also sideways and upward, using a range of leadership influence tactics.
Managerial influence, however, is exclusively downward and its objective is to improve employee performance. There are subtle differences between managerial influence and motivation. The latter focuses on maintaining or improving existing performance levels.
Popular motivation techniques include recognition and extrinsic rewards such as better pay, development opportunities and other benefits.
Managerial influence sits half way between motivation and leadership. Managers often need employees to make minor changes in how they work – adopt a new procedure or tool, change shifts, postpone their vacations, work overtime or move to a different role or location.
Whether we classify such influence as managerial or leadership influence depends on how it's done.
Suppose the manager says: "Would you mind working overtime today?" Or: "If you work overtime today, in addition to the extra pay, I'll let you leave early tomorrow." These tactics would be managerial influence, not leadership.
However, suppose there's a need to implement a new work procedure. The manager might just say: "This new procedure comes into effect tomorrow. From then on, here is what we need to do." This approach is a little autocratic but still a form of managerial influence.
Similarly, if the manager explains how the new procedure will make the work easier, focusing on what's in it for employees, then this is still managerial influence. Influence that relies on what's in it for the other party is a sales tactic, not leadership.
On the other hand, if the manager advocates the new procedure based on how it will benefit the overall team or company, appealing to employee pride in adding value, then it becomes leadership influence. Clearly, this is a fine distinction and it may not always be possible to correctly label an act of influence as leadership or management in practice.
We have already said something about leadership influence, at least what it is not. Motivating employees to work harder or asking them to do something different, especially if it's based on what's in it for them, is not leadership.
Consider these examples of leadership influence:
When green leaders promote energy conservation, they appeal to environmental concerns and values with the objective of making life more sustainable in the long term. They don't appeal narrowly to what's in it for the people they want to influence. Often, prospective followers are asked to make sacrifices for the greater good, such as trading in their gas-guzzling SUVs for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
This is why leadership influence is the opposite of selling. The former asks people to sacrifice their immediate needs or wishes for the greater good while sales people focus on what's in it for customers if they buy a certain product.
When front line employees show leadership to management by promoting a new product, they might appeal to profitability goals, market share or competitive advantage. And they might demonstrate how their idea is superior to competing products.
Leading by example can be shown by working smarter, serving customers better or being first to adopt a new procedure. Of course, it only works if people follow suit, but then this is true of all forms of influence, including selling.
Again there is a fine line between leadership and managerial influence here. If an employee who is not a manager demonstrates a new procedure, then we could classify it as a leadership act if others follow suit.
However, if a manager shows employees how much easier it is to do a task with the new procedure, setting an example might be the main influencing tactic but it would be managerial influence rather than leadership. Or, at best, it is mixed leadership and management influence because some employees might see it as a use of manaqerial authority.
Generally, leadership influence has two main features:
- A better way of doing things is advocated or demonstrated.
- The appeal is based on benefits to the group as a whole rather than catering to immediate individual needs.
What if someone generally regarded as a good leader persuades people to change direction by showing them the benefits they will gain personally? Well, this is still selling. Just because people are regarded as effective leaders doesn't mean that they can't use non-leadership forms of influence to achieve their ends.
This point shows why we need to distinguish between leadership-as-a-process from leadership-as-a-type-of-person.
As here defined, leadership is an influence process that can be shown by any kind of person. For instance, a low level technical specialist who has zero emotional intelligence and no positional leadership potential could still have a leadership impact by citing hard facts to influence people.
In other words, there is no direct association between leading and being a certain type of person. Yes, you need to have certain strong personality or character traits to be appointed to an executive role, but this means being a manager, one who may occasionally show leadership, but not BE a leader. There are no leaders on this account, strictly speaking, just occasional ACTS of leadership.
We need to move beyond the notion of BEING a leader in order to have a fully generalizable definition of leadership, one that includes isolated leadership impacts by green leaders, one-off acts of leading by example and successful leadership influence shown by employees who have no conventional leadership potential.
Leadership, Vision and Values
Leadership influence is often associated with vision and values. Many leadership gurus claim that leaders must have a vision and they must appeal to fundamental human values.
The view adopted here is different. Vision and values are only situational requirements, not universal ones. Leadership influence can be shown in technical contexts by an appeal to facts with no reference to human values.
Similarly, even small good ideas, ones that are too small-scale to be considered visionary can be used to show leadership.
The only reason that leadership is conventionally associated with vision and values is that leadership gurus have a bias toward larger-than-life leaders such as CEOs or prominent politicians.
The place of vision and values is situational. If you want people to change their values, say regarding how education is delivered or health care, an appeal to values is important. Green leaders appeal to values as well as facts. They might have a vision of a more sustainable future.
Still, there are other contexts, such as promoting a better product, where leadership doesn't need to be based on either a vision or values.
Leadership can be shown in two ways and only these two ways:
- By an explicit, verbal appeal.
- By example.
It is only with an explicit verbal appeal that vision and values come into play and, even then, only in some situations. Leading by example, not being a verbal appeal, makes no reference to either values or vision, by definition. The fact that the person leading by example may subscribe to certain values or a vision is beside the point. Leadership, in this case is not shown BY reference to them.
Charisma and Leadership Influence
Charismatic leaders can attract a huge and loyal following. Conventional leadership is very much about enlisting followers, creating a group with a group identity. While such leadership may always have a place in politics and certain social groups, it is on the wane in business because we are now in a knowledge driven age where hard facts count for more than style.
But what about the fact that people are highly influenced by charismatic individuals, people with sex appeal, who are tall and good looking? Well, such influence could be classified as a form of selling because it is really the follower's needs to be close to, or to identify with, an attractive person that is involved here.
That is, it almost doesn't matter what the charismatic leader is advocating, we follow anyway because we're infatuated with everything this person says and does.
You might object: What does it matter whether someone uses sales tactics or charisma as long as people willingly follow?
If your objective is simply to get people to adopt your proposals, then of course, anything that succeeds in influencing them is all that matters.
The point here is that, if we want to understand the nature of real leadership and how it's changing in a knowledge driven era of complexity and rapid change, then we should explore new angles.
When charismatic people are in charge of groups, we witness a variety of kinds of influence, in addition to genuine leadership influence. They may also make use of sales tactics, some gentle coercion and managerial influence. This carving up of influence, however, only makes sense if we focus on showing leadership rather than on being a leader.
Benefit of Rethinking Leadership and Influence
As it is, conventional leadership is an exclusive club because it requires some special personality traits. Leadership defined as an influence process gives us an account of how leadership can be shown, on a one-off basis, by anyone who can influence people to change direction, even in small ways by low key appeals to better ways of working.
This concept of leadership is more democratic, fitting for an age of the wisdom of crowds, where everyone can have some impact on a group's direction by making even minor suggestions.