Has "Leadership" Become a Misnomer?

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I remember playing a game called follow-the-leader, as a child. First, a leader was chosen to be at the head of a line of children. The other children, then, lined up behind the leader. The leader moved around aimlessly, sometimes with a stick in his hand, and all the children mimicked the leader’s actions. Any players who failed to follow the leader and do what the leader did had to stop playing the game (i.e., was out of the game). The child who followed the leader the longest (i.e., the last remaining follower) was the winner and became the leader when the game re-started. In some ways, the game follow-the-leader epitomizes the leader selection process in today’s organizations.

Leadership is defined as the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. The word “motivating” in the definition of leadership is key to determining whether or not leadership is taking place in an organization. Leaders motivate by influence and inspiration. Good leaders make their people want to achieve a particular goal. Some leaders strictly use rewards or punishments to motivate their people. The strict use of rewards and punishments to motivate people is a tactic usually employed by managers. Although the titles manager and leader are used synonymously, the two positions are often diametrically opposed.

Management entails planning, budgeting, staffing, and measuring performance. Managers hold a position of authority and their subordinates usually do as they are told in an effort to earn a reward or avoid some punishment. Managers often use their position and power to control their people rather than inspire them to voluntarily produce positive result. In some cases, managers lose self control in their desire to show their power. Mangers sometimes fail to realize their subordinates accept direction from them solely because they are in a “leadership” position. However, that does not make the manager a leader. Leaders view their subordinates as followers and inspire them to act voluntarily. Organizations that confuse management for leadership and view their managers as leaders realize productivity declines as a result of being over-managed and under-led. This rings true for organizations as small as the mom-and-pop corner store to organizations as large as the federal government.

The Department of Defense uses the “leader” title to describe management positions where a person is responsible for following long-standing processes and ensuring the completion of mundane work. The title of leader (e.g., squad leader, platoon leader, etc.) is used to describe young service members who are given control of their group. The military gives its members opportunities to be in charge early in their career. However, being in charge does not necessarily make the service member a leader. Proper training and experience is needed to truly lead. Many service members have admitted some promotions to leadership positions are based on service time rather than qualifications.

The Department of Defense provides training for its civilian employees in an effort to prepare them for leadership positions. The Defense Senior Leadership Development Program is designed to develop senior civilian leaders to excel in the 21st Century. Each prospective leader is given training that includes leadership seminars and rotational assignments. Although each student must have three years of full-time civilian service, a bachelor’s degree, and one year of supervisory experience as well as hold a GS-14 equivalent rank before entering the leadership program, seasoned leaders question whether or not the training is sufficient enough to don each student with the post-program title of leader.

Leadership is about vision, inspiration, and passion. Leadership does not simply refer to the people at the top of hierarchies or people who have charisma. Leaders are honest and trustworthy and do not obscure facts for self interest. While managers focus on the bottom line, leaders concentrate on the horizon. Leaders set the organizational norms and inspire each manager to accept those norms. Managers, in turn, act to ensure their subordinates adopt the norms set by leadership. Leaders listen for new ideas that might blaze a new path or ease passage through an existing path. Managers, conversely, do not focus much on listening as they already have direction and the processes necessary to complete the job assigned to them.

There is a school of thought that attempts to justify blending, in some way, the positions of leader and manager. Some scholars believe managers are not needed if workers are knowledgeable (i.e., are knowledge-workers). The guidance offered to knowledge-workers is said to be best provided by leaders rather than managers since knowledge-workers are thinkers who operate best as individuals-they manage themselves. Although knowledge-workers are often located remotely from their superiors and are dependent on information technology to perform their duties, their progress and productivity must still be assessed. The superior might be labeled a leader, but the task of measuring the progress of workers is a management responsibility.

True leaders hold the characteristics of honesty, forward-looking, competent, and inspirational. Leaders create visions, concepts, and plans and positively influence followers’ desire to adopt organizational goals. Managers simply adopt leadership’s visions, concepts, and plans and use power, rewards, and punishments to motivate their subordinates. Confusing the titles of leader and manager can stifle productivity and innovation. Has leadership become a misnomer? Many scholars say yes. Perhaps, in the future, some leadership titles should be changed to management (e.g., squad manager or platoon manager). For now, many “leaders” will continue to move around aimlessly with stick-in-hand and subordinates will follow.