“Life isn’t easy, and leadership is harder still.”
Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead

Author: Chatham House; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chatham House; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I can remember a time when the term “leader” was used to describe the most senior person in any human run entity, such as the CEO of a large company, a President or Prime Minister of a country that actually had a seat at the United Nations, or even the head of any religious organisation that needed more than one minibus to take all its adherents to the annual sausage sizzle. (See “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011).

This does not seem to be the case today, when we appear willing to accord a leadership title to all.

It is as though words like “specialist”, supervisor” and even “manager” have all been discarded from our business lexicon.

Project Managers have been replaced by Project Leads and Team Leaders, even if the entire team consists of 2-3 people, Senior Maths Teachers in schools are now The Maths Leader, and Shift Leader has replaced Shift Supervisor even in small factories.

My first promotion in 1968 was from the position of Computer Programmer to the role of being in charge of a 6-man programming team, which carried the exalted title of Senior Programmer. Today that title is more likely to be Leader Software Development, just as the person who is responsible for looking after the elevator staff at Harrods Department Store in London will no doubt be carrying the title of Leader Vertical Displacement Services.

Even my next promotion carried the title of Supervisor, and it took me another two years to actually get to a position that carried the word “Manager” in the title. We had a leader … he was the CEO.

via Wikimedia Commons; {{PD-US}}

via Wikimedia Commons; {{PD-US}}

I find that it is very rare these days that anyone even talks about management training, as people who are seen as being of management potential are now sent on Leadership Development Programmes rather than management training, despite the fact that statistics tell us that most will never get beyond a first level management position. Even Primary school teachers today go on leadership development courses even if most don’t/won’t/can’t become a school principal, and just want to be able to teach young children, and to do it well.

Is it just a question of time before we replace the increasingly more humbly titled MBA with the more importantly sounding MLA (Mater of Leadership Attainment), as business schools finally come to the realisation that this is a whole new gravy train?

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT license

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT license

I was recently asked to come and talk about leadership at an annual company event that brings together all staff that are in any “people responsible” roles (to be somewhat cautious in my use of language) for a 2-day talk fest to kick off the new business year. In discussing the remit with my host, I innocently asked whether, as my session would be on the topic of Leadership, I could assume that I would be addressing the senior executive team. It turned out that I would actually be presenting to everyone except their “Top-100” senior managers, being the 1000 or so first and middle level management.

When I asked whether, based on the audience, discussing “management rather than leadership” would not be more appropriate, I was told that the company had decided to run a programme that was planned to make everyone “a leader in their role”, and that this was all part of the key messaging of this year’s kick-off meeting. My suggestion that what he was describing was surely more about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” rather than being about “leadership” almost lost me the assignment.

However, as it was an existing client, and it was a good fee, I titled my session, as they had suggested, “We are all leaders” and spoke about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way”.

I do wonder however, whether we have come to a point where the word “leadership” has become so overused that it is losing its true meaning, just like the word “cloud” is today in the tech industry where everything is now labelled as being cloud, when much of it is really just smoke.

Are we trying to give everyone the title of leader as this then removes the need for senior management to actually do something about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” ? By making everyone a leader does that just conveniently shift this responsibility from the top of the pyramid down to the individual ? Despite the changes in titles I have not seen the commensurate increases in authority and levels of freedom that one would normally associate with someone in a leadership role.

I salute the whole idea of giving people more freedom, fewer barriers, more responsibility, the right to manage themselves and how they do their job, as I have long believed that when we remove the shackles from people, many will take the opportunity to soar rather than just make do.

I am also not questioning that people can take up a temporary leadership role dependant on the situation being faced at the time, like one team member being quiet during a team discussion on technology, but leading the discussion when the topic switches to sales and marketing.

But I don’t think that this makes them a leader. It can, however, make them a liberated employee who is committed to making a serious contribution to the company in areas where they have subject matter expertise, and as such we should treat them with respect, hear what they have to say, and make sure that we nurture them as one day, in the right environment, they may actually become a true leader.

If we really want to build leaders, we need to give people the culture and the freedom to act, to learn and to grow, rather than to just give them a title with the word “leader” embedded in it.

Author: Arquivo/ABr; CC BY 3.0 BR license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Arquivo/ABr; CC BY 3.0 BR license; via Wikimedia Commons

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work and time. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal.” American Football Coach Vince Lombardi (1913-1970).



  1. cnxtim says:

    I have difficulty with the assertion that leaders are made.

    in my experience, true leaders rather than those with some ink on a business card or a tick in the box from a training course, do posses the inherent character traits that go to make up one who leads.

    Many folk are really happy to accept a role where they are being heard and respected whilst achieving their career goals and are very happy to have someone else “calling the shots” and often as not, receiving them with aplomb and another dent in their ego when things go skewiff.

    Bursting into tears, blaming others or circumstances or taking a long walk off a short pier are other indicators leadership is not for you.

  2. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, is it possible that this vogue to be just the natural way of management evolution?

    I find it hard to see your job in 1968 to contain the word “Manager” or “Team leader” – which you actually were… since the first book on management as a discipline was Drucker’s “Practice of Management” in 1954 and the literature went global only about 20 years later when we started to have more Manager and then Leader names… and another 20 years later we started to realize managers should be leaders and viceversa. You might be surprised to hear that there are still top executives that ask the question “Do you want to be a leader or a manager?” feeling extremely deep and wise…

    I also strongly believe that leaders are made and they should learn to use these skills as they learn to use computer… since primary school.

    I personally see no harm in anyone to be called a leader in their role… as since hopefully everyone has now the basic knowledge… the true leaders of the future won’t be the ones with the “leader” label but the ones with the skills.

    What do you think? Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, my concern is that people are being given the title of leader with no change in their level of authority or their freedom to act, and that this “title” is being handed out to overcome having to rethink the way people should be allowed to take some real control over how they work. I have no problem with titles “a rose by any other name …” but I see that some/many just hand out “leader” as a cop-out. Les

      • Les, I understand your concern. If “leaders” are just trying to shortcut their responsibilities—“empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” among other things—by simply handing out titles, then they are not “leading” those they serve. Handing out the title “leader” does not make one a leader and it would suggest that the leader handing out the title isn’t one either. There, as you know, has to be a cultural change in the organization for people at all levels to begin to accept the responsibility of leadership. And it is a responsibility not just an affirmation of one’s uniqueness.

      • leshayman says:

        Michael, you hit it in one. True leaders understand that freedom is about action rather than titles. I have long believed that true leaders focus on building leaders rather than followers. Les

  3. Pingback: Leadership is a quality not a grade – Naomi Stanford

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