Tell Me What a Leader Is

December / 2020
Author: Dan Bradley

Can you define leadership? I thought I could until I was asked to stand in front of a room full of my coworkers at a leadership seminar and deliver my definition. My description fell along the standard lines – a leader is someone who influences or guides a group of people towards achieving a collective goal. The lecturer must have anticipated my response because he smiled as he clicked the PowerPoint presentation to the next slide and revealed a photo collage of some of history’s most notorious figures (Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro among them) all of whom very effectively influenced and guided large groups of people towards a common goal.

What he was telling me was clear: my definition of leadership sucked.

Leadership is often viewed with an almost poetic beauty or as idyllic heroism. Everybody wants to be a leader, and everybody wants to HIRE a leader, but if you struggle to define leadership, how do you know that you are a leader? Equally as important, how do you go about hiring more?

Now that you’re examining your own definition of leadership, here’s another question: how do you define a manager? In my experience, people often use the word “manager” to describe an ineffective leader – as in, “He doesn’t actually lead, he just manages.” I’ve heard that phrase time and time again, and in my opinion it’s not only an incorrect definition but a lazy criticism. It lacks the substance required to define (much less disparage) one’s capacity for either leadership or management. All that said, let me guide you with what I think are the simplest definitions of leaders and managers – 

Leaders drive change and progress. Managers maintain stability and processes

Can you see how vastly different, even opposite, those definitions are?

I’ve worked with hundreds of people that call themselves “leaders” and plaster it as a qualification on their resume as if it’s a golden ticket to a promotion. The truth of the matter is that only a small fraction of those self-anointed leaders ever drove change or progress, but those who rarely led were often outstanding managers. Conversely, I’ve worked with people who were fantastic leaders that, according to my definition, were completely incompetent managers. 

If you hire someone who is a highly skilled leader and put them in a managerial role, you’re failing them, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see them underperform. If you hire a manager and expect them to lead, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. In either case, their performance (or lack of it) is a result of your mistake, and you can trace the source of that error back to the simple fact that you never took the time to come to your own definition and understanding of the vast differences between the qualities of a leader and the qualities of a manager.

To be clear, it is absolutely possible for someone to be both a skilled leader and a capable manager. These skill sets are not mutually exclusive, but you cannot assume that there is any degree of correlation between the two skill sets. Being a great leader does not inherently increase your capacity to be a qualified manager, or vice versa. 

Everyone wants to say they’re a leader, but don’t just take their word for it. Ask them if they know what it means — and then hold them to their own definition.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community within Air Force Special Warfare. In that time, he became qualified as an Air Liaison Officer (ALO) and a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), rising quickly to be entrusted with prominent leadership, management, and director roles. Dan partnered with EF Overwatch in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors, a commercial HVAC company in Dallas. He and his wife Lauren live in Flower Mound, Texas.