We’ve all had bosses and colleages that we could describe as managers, but how many of these individuals could actually be classified as leaders? I’m guessing not many. What’s the difference, anyway? And does it really matter?

A manager exists to control and maintain the status quo. They might excel at accomplishing goals and keeping things in order. In fact, good managers are often able to maintain momentum for a long time, and this can be very valuable to the organization. But what if this momentum is carrying your business in the wrong direction? This is where many managers fall short. While they are great at keeping the ship moving full speed ahead, they rarely know how to steer it.

Leaders stand apart from managers because they have a knack for navigating rough waters. They have the amazing ability to influence, motivate, inspire, and engage with their followers and team members. More specifically, a transformational leader is someone who can act as a healthy and powerful change agent within an organization. These folks are problem solvers, able to delve into the nitty gritty and deal with the “wicked problems” that are eating at an organization.

There are four components to transformational leadership, often called the “Four Is”:

  1. Idealized Influence. The leader walks the talk, does what she says, and is seen as a role model.
  2. Inspirational Motivation. The leader has the ability to energize teams and promote confidence and a sense of purpose.
  3. Individualized Consideration. The leader has genuine concern for the specific needs of each team member.
  4. Intellectual Stimulation. The leader knows how to challenge his team and constantly raise the bar.

So going back to the question at the top of this post: does this distinction between manager and leader really matter? Absolutely. I firmly believe that we need more managers that understand and employ transformational leadership techniques. That way, they become drivers of the organization instead of mere curators. I should note that one doesn’t even need formal authority to be a transformational leader (though it certainly helps!). As long as an organization has a powerful team-oriented culture, leaders can emerge from anywhere.

I’ve identified several characteristics of good leaders that are important to me. This list is far from complete, but it’s a start:

  1. Talk about values. Good leaders have a strong moral compass and are able to talk about what’s most important to them. By doing so, they project an image of trustworthiness, credibility, and humanity.
  2. Distribute responsibility. Empowering others not only makes the organization more diverse, it also boosts the skills of employees at all levels. Distributing responsibility gives the organization more opportunities for innovation and engagement.
  3. Be Transparent. We’ve all worked for organizations where the rumor mill was the most reliable source of news. But this actually takes power away from the organization, because leadership fails to control the message! When people lack clear information, it destroys confidence and weakens morale.
  4. Encourage innovation. Accept ideas from all levels and departments. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Find value in new and unexpected places. Be open to change.
  5. Accept failure. As Mr. Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So unless you’re playing it super safe, failure is always an option. Real leaders understand mistakes are just part of the process; failure is the crucible that makes employees — and thus the organization — stronger in the future.
  6. Never stop learning. True leaders have the humility to realize that their own development is never complete. They have a hunger for constant personal growth, which they often instill in their followers as well. Thus, good leaders will invest heavily in ongoing training and growth for all employees.

For more information on what makes a good strategic leader, I encourage you to read a great article by Leitch, Lancefield, and Dawson on the 10 Principles of Strategic Leadership.

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