On leadership, supervision, managing and just being the boss.

In my professional life, something has been bothering me for a while now, and that is the complete lack of leadership in our country today. Somehow we've equated the idea that simply being experienced at something makes one qualified to lead. I think there is a definite quality to true leaders, and so I'd like to spend a few hundred words defining the difference between those who simply supervise and those who lead.

I believe there is a heirarchy when it comes to those in roles of authority. I like to think of them as, in order of ability, bosses, managers, supervisors and leaders.

Bosses are those individuals who accomplish a task through the unrestricted wielding of the power of their position. These are individuals who are placed in positions of authority who use brute force and intimidation to motivate you to do what they want. Bosses tend to micromanage, and their sole concern is accomplishing their tasks, regardless of the human capital involved. Bosses are at the bottom of the scale because they are woefully unable to manage the people who work for them and generally use only negative motivation to get their subordinates to do what they say. There is generally no loyalty among those subordinates, and at the first opportunity they will turn on the boss. Everyone has dealt with this type of person - so self-consumed with their authority and the tasks at hand that they don't realize they're actually being a total bastard to everyone that works for them. If you're in a position of authority and you feel like all of your subordinates hate you or don't understand your vision, you might just be acting like a boss.

Next up the ladder is the manager. The manager is the person in authority who has a task to complete and sets his people to work on it like a child spinning a top. Pull the string and then step back and watch it go. Managers tend to be absentee figures, expecting their subordinates to complete a task with little supervision or guidance. While managers tend not to micromanage, their laissez-faire approach tends to garner just as much contempt - the people who work for them feel like their management simply doesn't care and expects them to shoulder the full load, while standing by ready to take credit for their work. Managers often take on more projects than they can reasonably handle, confident that they can motivate their people to tackle these tasks with a minimum of effort on their part. Managers tend to demand frequent status reports, like to hold planning and progress meetings and be "kept informed" without actually getting their hands dirty. Managers rank slightly higher than bosses on the leadership scale, simply because they don't actively try to hurt their subordinates in order to ensure performance, but they are still mostly ineffective as authority figures.

Almost at the top of the ladder is the supervisor. Supervisors are involved with the people who work for them and the projects they are responsible for. They can micromanage at times, but generally understand that tasks are accomplished far easier when someone isn't looking over your shoulder. Unfortunately, like the boss, the supervisor uses his position of authority as a source of power, encouraging his subordinates, but constantly reminding them that there are consequences to failure. The supervisor's first loyalty is to his carreer and while he is easier to work for than the boss or manager, he will still deal with people or situations in a way that benefits his carreer goals rather than what is best for the team.

At the top of the scale is the leader. A leader is someone who inspires others to perform by setting the example and doing what is best for the group as a whole. Being a leader involves taking risks and assuming responsibility for the performance of your team instead of looking out for your carreer. A leader understands that his subordinates don't just work for him, but that he's responsible to them as well. He willingly assumes these risks and responsibilities, which is what sets him apart from the other three groups. If a project is a success, then the leader can be sure he has done his job, and if it is not, he understands that responsibility is on him first and foremost. Bosses, managers and supervisors will always look for the sacrificial lambs among their subordinates in the event of failure, whereas a leader recognizes that the failure of his team is his failure more than anyone else's. He looks out for his people, and as a result, his people look out for him. More than anything else, a leader understands that he is not regarded in terms of his own abilities, but rather in terms of the abilities of his team as a whole. He does not assign blame, he does not get results through intimidation or heavy-handed management, he gets results by governing his subordinates with respect and by accepting responsibility for his team as a whole.

Two key things, however, truly separate a leader from the other positions of authority - first, their teams achieve results because they want to, not because they are made to. Leaders cultivate a team mentality, and their subordinates perform accordingly. A leader cannot be afraid to invoke discipline when it's called for, but he does not use it as his method of motivation. As such, the people who work for him perform because they have a genuine desire to meet his expectations.

Second, leaders are not always put in positions of authoriy, but they will always somehow migrate there. I guarantee you've seen these individuals - maybe on a group project or in an informal setting - they tend to be reluctant to assume the helm, yet they end up there anyway. A true leader doesn't have to demand power or rely on the virtue of his position in an organization to end up in authority, and they tend to view that authority as a burden rather than as an extravagence. They end up in leadership roles by virtue of their ability to lead and the recognition of that ability by those around them.

So, gentle reader, the next time you're in a position of authority, ask yourself - am I using my authority wisely, or am I being just a boss? Strive to be leader.

Post script: I dedicate this post to one of the best leaders I've ever had the priviledge to work for: LTC Paul Fil, US Army. The lessons you taught weren't lost on me sir, thank you for shaping me into the man I've become.

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Comment by thehuhman on September 10, 2009 at 6:22am
@ E. Jahn "One of the main problems in this country is that there is too much 'management' and not enough leadership." This is so true. Thanks for your post, E. Jahn.
Comment by E. Jahn on September 9, 2009 at 7:27pm
"One of the main problems in this country is that there is too much 'management' and not enough *leadership*." -- Master Doh-San

Leadership is all about accepting risk; management seeks to avoid risk. Real men are leaders who not only accept risk, but also accept their failures and the consequences thereof. Real men do not play the blame game.

When I was at the USAF NCO Academy at Goodfellow AFB back in '96, I really got into it with one of the instructors. He had made some comment about "managing" people. My comment was that mannpower is a resource to manage, but people must be led. I'm not sure if he didn't grok the difference, was playing devil's advocate, or was just being stubborn.

Leadership is a whole different ballgame.

Of course, in order to lead people, one must understand what motivates people. It is our considered opinion that people are motivated by one of three considerations: compulsion, gain, or -- for want of a better word -- altruism.

There are far too many in this world who are motivated only by compulsion. They do what they must, and no more. And one who must be compelled at every turn is largely worthless.

There are some who are motivated by gain. They show up and do a good job because of the prospect -- however dim -- of advancement. They act in the belief that doing a good job will result in a reward of some form or another. Beware those, however, who will dream up self-aggrandizing schemes in order to get gain.

The best -- and the fewest -- are those who will do what is right solely because it is the right thing to do, without regard to gain or loss. Such are the true leaders.

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