Leadership: All Those Shades of Grey

We take a quick look at leadership and try to discover what it really means

“One can be a manager without being a leader; and one can be a leader without being a manager,” wrote Diane, in a comment on our site some time back. “Too many people these days confuse the two. A leader is someone people want to follow. A manager who is not a leader is just a slave-driver. The difference between the two is that the former gets the most and best out of his/her people; the latter gets the minimal.”

Or as the late management guru Peter Drucker, who identified the “knowledge worker,” famously put it: “one does not ‘manage’ people. The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

These statements provide a top-line summary of the endless debate around the subject of leadership. This has encompassed decades of academic study... and in recent years, thousands of impassioned LinkedIn articles. Yet despite a fairly agreed definition, leadership is still a huge grey area. After all, those endless ‘Manager/Leader’ check-sheet images which haunt the timelines of LinkedIn are far easier to click a quick thumbs up to, than actually deliver on.

On top of which, those much publicised Walter Isaacson revelations about Steve Jobs in 2011 proved that, whilst Jobs may have epitomised an ‘inspirational leader’, he was also deliberately horrible to people. And surely those bullying tactics must be counter-intuitive in the long run?

This subject certainly provokes mixed feeling. A straw poll we ran to 115 global respondents following an article on Steve Jobs showed that 57% of those surveyed did not think the Jobs characteristic of being deliberately horrible to people was crucial to leadership. However, a surprising 15% thought it was, and 26% thought it might be. This is pretty revealing and certainly contradicts the ethos of those black and white, LinkedIn-shared check box definitions.

The real problem is there are a lot of different ways this subject can be approached and defined. One interesting study, released in 2012 by Stanford University, showed that more guilt-prone individuals tend to make the best business leaders than others. This hinged on the fact that these people tend to carry a stronger sense of social responsibility than others. It made a clear psychological distinction between guilt and shame though. Sufferers from the former, apparently tend to feel bad about things and try to rectify the problem; whilst those afflicted by the latter simply feel bad.

Often unhelpfully though, the easiest way to talk about all this is via the negative impact of bad management - or no leadership. And it is certainly an emotive issue – just read the scores of people badmouthing former bosses here.

Yet the negative statistics are also pretty high if we trust a survey conducted by OfficeTeam a couple of years back. This showed 46% of respondents had worked for an ‘unreasonable manager' at one time or another and most people had just learnt to put up with it. Obviously ‘unreasonable’ is open to interpretation and doesn’t necessarily negate effectiveness, but even so, it does not seem a good number.

There are so many factors to leadership that the positive impact of a good leader, or the negative impact of a poor manager, become extremely difficult to extricate or quantify. Maybe Dr Clive Boughton put it best in a comment on our site?  “'Consistent', 'honest', 'straight', 'ethical' and 'open' with people and also being the 'buck stopper' by accepting 'blame': these characteristics are what I expect of myself as a boss, and I get 'angry' about when other 'weak' bosses fail to do so.”


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect