During the past month or so on LinkedIn, a very active discussion continues to unfold about perceived distinctions between leaders and managers. Perhaps coincidently, a significant number of people, some new acquaintances and some long-term colleagues, have asked me how a person becomes a leader. Frequently, the question is more specific: how do I become a leader?
The question is intriguing for a number of reasons.
On one hand, people do not seem to be asking how they can become a manager. Perhaps that is because the person asking the question knows that have studied leadership extensively; however, my longer-term colleagues will also be aware of my study of management and, more specifically, improving management effectiveness, since the late 1970′s. Perhaps my colleagues and acquaintances already have an understanding that a person can learn to be a better manager through a combination of study, experience, and effort.
Many organizations have a clearly defined career path and management development track. From observation of dozens of organizations during a 25-plus year consulting career, few organizations seem to have a leadership development track. It is possible that the lower level of development of programs to train new leaders arises at least in part from the comparative newness of the study of leadership compared to approximately a century of the study of management. Even the suggestion that leaders can be trained or developed remains controversial in some circles while management training and development is broadly accepted.
At the risk of appearing trite, one key to becoming a leader is having followers. Organizational structures seem to take care of providing managers with subordinates, although clearly some managers are more skilled than others at actually managing. Having a managerial title places a person in a position in which they are expected to perform certain and specific managerial duties. Having a managerial position does not inherently make a person a manager; neither does a position, of management or leadership, automatically make the holder of the position a leader. Leaders require followers to lead; perhaps it can be said that followers also require leaders to follow.
It is possible to become a leader, but first you need followers.