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Leadership Lessons #1: Definitions

Arvid Buit | 22 April 2020

In this first article of the series Leadership Lessons, based on the eponymous podcast, we talk about definitions. What does leadership mean? And what is the difference between a leader and a manager?
It’s not about KNOW HOW, but about SHOW HOW in leadership.

Since 2009 I have been working as an executive coach, helping successful people to feel happy, change their behaviour and interact with others in a reciprocal way. I am working with the best psychologists and psychiatrists in my country, wrote two books, hundreds of articles, and learn more about leadership every day. My expertise lies on the leadership brain and personality, trying to understand the development from baby to boss, and I share my expertise during lectures on leadership events and educational programs. In this series I share informational, but high-level content usable for you as a reader. Placing reality in context, growing your own competence as a leader, or just trying to get a grasp on these strange and absurd people fighting for a seat in the boardroom. Try reading the series in logical order. I will jump back and refer to specific topics now and then. In article 10 I assume you understand the information brought to you in episode 4. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the outcome of all this, and share the series with people you know. These articles are based on the Leadership Lessons Podcast. Do you prefer listening over reading? Listen to the Leadership Lessons Podcast riding to work, exercising or during lunch.  


Before talking about leadership, it might be good to look at the current climate in media and lunchrooms around the globe. People speak about leadership in a lot of different ways. Mostly, because they like to link the definition of leadership, to at least something they do themselves. If you work as a manager, you like to ‘lead the team’, and if you are just a homeless guy under a bridge, you certainly do some ‘personal leadership’ to get out of this situation. But sadly, these things have nothing to do with leadership.  

What is a leader

Leadership is about someone in an ultimately responsible position, creating the strategy for a collective. Three aspects in this definition are crucial. First of all, only the men and women at the top of the iceberg, are leading. The others might contribute or even manage a large group of people, but they aren’t leading the pact. They are not the ones responsible for the strategy of the whole collective. Secondly, a leader is not working on HOW to accomplish goals, but WHICH goals the collective is moving towards. He or she is showing the pact WHY they are moving to this position, and let others decide HOW to get there. Because a leader is not an all knowing, all powerful super human being with competences on every subject. Sometimes they thínk they do, but really they don’t… And third, it’s always about a collective. You cannot direct yourself on a stage, you cannot lead yourself and you cannot team up with only your own nice little personality. These things are mistaken with responsibility, personal planning and making decisions that benefit your daily life. It has, sorry to say, nothing to do with leadership. At all. So now we have the term ‘leader’ very clear; someone ultimately responsible for the strategy of a collective. Then what is ‘leadership’? Because that seems something you can work at. A competence of some sort. But being a leader, is just you in that position.  

What is leadership

Leadership is basically about showing the right psychological scripts in effective behaviour in your roll as a leader. I will talk more about psychological scripts in a later episode and article. For now focus on behaviour. It’s great that you are ambitious, or talented, or successful, or powerful. But the only thing deciding whether you are effective as a leader, is your behaviour. A lot of professionals think that an MBA, or other ways of gathering knowledge, will bring them closer to a position as a leader. And sometimes, that’s true. But never for the right reasons. Most boardroom members know how they should act. But only a handful show that they know. So, and this is an important lesson: It’s not about KNOW HOW, but about SHOW HOW in leadership. People are looking up to you, with the ‘where are we going boss’ look on their face. And whatever you want: if you can’t show the way, they certainly won’t follow. Only telling the way, is the best predictor of you asking yourself in a few months why nothing happened. We know that this leader type is running a collective, and in the next episode and article I am  going to talk more about necessity. About the collective itself, and the type of leader they would like to see. But what I can tell you right here and right now, is that leadership is not useful all the time. Leaders have this unique talent to steer, change and decide, but sometimes the collective is just okay. That’s the moment a leader can be extremely destructive, in his strive for change and success. Because you cannot always peak. You cannot always and endlessly grow. The only thing in nature that grows endlessly and uncontrollably, is cancer. And it’ll kill you. As do unpolished leaders with a hunger for recognition. In this serie you will learn to understand why they have this hunger. Where the hunger arose and how to feed it properly without killing the collective.  

What is the difference between a manager and a leader

Inside companies, we also have the role of a manager, commonly mistaken with a leader. A manager is responsible for controlling, measuring and ordering a subgroup within the collective. He or she creates boundaries, rules and instructions for professionals to work with. It’s very important to know and understand, that a subgroup can never have a different strategy or goal than the full collective. They are just delivering a piece of the cake, but with another recipe, you end up with one bite of strawberry in a chocolate cake. So a manager is not tasked with strategy, nor is he or she ultimately responsible for reaching the collective goal. Linked to the needs of professionals, and the way they work and develop, it is important to help these people to function the best way possible. This means, they create safe boundaries for the professional to work in. It gives people a secure feeling and a comfortable place to expand their personal traits. Having a specific task within the subgroup, the manager needs to find the right people, to form a team. People that not only combine powers, but also fill in each others weak spots. Trying to get them to work in one pace, enabling the team to check-in on every sub-goal to see if all is going well. A manager, (however this is not a very popular task), also needs to check if people actually do their work. Have you ever tried to loose weight? Well: you have to step onto a scale every week, and possibly every day. This is the only way to measure and make sure to adapt if results are not like planned. People tend to overestimate their competence structurally, as researched by Tayler/Brown in 1988. They wrote a paper on ‘Illusions of Well being.’ I will address those in a later episode and article, on ‘working with normal people’, but for now it’s good to know that a decent an healthy human being, structurally overestimates their own capacities and status. So a manager needs to check. Needs to measure. And needs to make sure all the elements within the team cooperate in a congruent way. Now you understand the difference between a leader and a manager. I won’t talk a lot about management in upcoming episodes and articles, but we actually are going to see how this script and personality is very useful within organisations. Unless you are all emailing me to ask for management information. I’ll then add it to the serie in a later stadium.  

For this moment, let’s see what the lessons are:

  1. Leadership isn’t about know how, but about show how. So don’t focus on gathering  knowledge, but on changing your daily behaviour.
  2. A leader is ultimately responsible for the strategy of a collective
  3. A manager is responsible for controlling, measuring and ordering a subgroup within the collective
  4. Professionals working within a collective will typically overestimate their competences and position, and both the manager and leader need to be aware of this
  5. A leader needs to lead the way and point WHERE the collective is going. The professionals on the workfloor, need to decide HOW to get there. The manager makes sure, that the subgroup works congruently, measures results and creates the right boundaries to stay within
Read Casestudy with Bob: Showing where to go to learn more. If you like to know more about these definitions, feel free to send me an e-mail or add me as a connection on LinkedIn. The next subject we will discuss in this series is: Necessity.