Why You Can’t Just Be a Leader

The primary hindrance to the growth of any business is always the senior leader of that business (you can read my post on “Are You the Bottleneck?” for more on that point) because no business (or organization) can consistently perform at a level beyond the capacity of their senior leader. And one of the primary hindrance/capacity points for any business leader is when they try to be, “just a leader.”

Now, to help you understand why this happens so often, let’s go back to the founding and history of a typical business. When a typical business gets started, the founder, by definition does everything. As the business grows and there’s more to do and it becomes too much for one person to do, the typical owner hires employees so they can delegate (which for most business owners is simply dumping) tasks to other people.

As that owner starts delegating more and more tasks and adding more and more people, complexity takes over and somewhere between employee 8 and 15, most owners tend to move away from “managing people and tasks” to “leading the organization” which is usually code for “I’m tired of managing all this stuff and prefer to do the fun things like dreaming up new ideas and thinking about the future.”

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming up new ideas and thinking about the future. In fact, you should be doing those things as the leader of your business. The problem comes when a leader adopts the dichotomous belief that leading and managing are two separate things that can’t be done together, as if this is an either/or kind of scenario (when it’s a both/and).

The result is that ideas don’t get executed (and if they do, it usually takes much longer than they should have). People aren’t developed. Communication breaks down. Customer service suffers. Quality takes a hit. Revenue is a shadow of what it could be. Growth gets stunted, etc. Basically, nothing good comes from making this “leader-only” choice.

So, what should you do?

I. Remember That Ideas Alone Don’t Make Someone a Leader

Ideas are essential to leadership. They’re the air we breath because you can’t lead a group of people somewhere if you don’t know where that somewhere is. In other words, the leadership part of your job is critical. You can’t grow a company without having lots of great ideas.

However, there comes a point where you have to move beyond “Get a Dream Leadership” to “Get it Done Leadership.” Sorting out and determining what the right idea is out of all the possible ideas on the table is a critical skill set that you have to own as a leader. But if you don’t actually invest the time and energy to see that idea through to successful completion, you’re not a great leader.

Great leaders don’t just have great ideas. They get engaged. The develop their execution abilities. They stay on top of their key strategic ideas until they become reality. We judge leaders not on how smart they are or how talented they are or how well they do with PR or any other host of criteria. We judge leaders based on their ability to get results done through other people.

This idea of being “just a leader,” is fallacious. It’s a lie perpetrated by people who don’t want to do the hard work of turning ideas into real workable solutions. So, don’t buy the lie. You can’t “just be a leader” if you want to be a great leader who builds a great company.

II. Realize that Leadership and Management are on a Continuum

Whenever you or I read about leaders and managers, they’re almost always pitted against one another. Here’s what leaders do. Here’s what managers do. See how they’re different? And they are … on a piece of paper in a classroom or in a book or on a blog.

However, in reality, there are very few pure leaders and pure managers. Most of us are a combination of both, just to varying degrees.

The way I like to envision it is a continuum (similar to a line) with a pure manager on the left side and a pure leader on the right side. No one is directly in the middle. Everyone has a leaning, a personal preference, to either leading or managing, so they’re on one side or the other (i.e. you either have a natural bent toward leading or managing).

However, the goal for every leader or manager should be to move closer to the middle (not the extreme edges). In other words, great leaders have to learn how to become great managers because it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you can’t execute and turn them into reality. On the other hand, you can’t be a great manager of people, if you don’t know how to lead them someplace and inspire them to be and do more.

That’s why I say you have to kill the belief that you can be a pure leader (or a pure manager). To do either job well, you have to acquire the skill set to do the other side’s job. Or to put it a different way, your goal should be to become a great leader/manager (or a great manager/leader), but not to be a pure leader (or pure manager).

III. Choose to Be Fully Engaged

Being fully engaged is not equivalent to micro-managing. Nor is aloofness equivalent to great leadership. The reality is that great leaders constantly struggle with trying to find the balance between those two extremes.

However, most of the leaders I meet these days seem to be sliding more toward the aloof side more than the micro-managing side. And that makes sense. When you’re overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it, plus you have a personal preference to focus on the idea side over the execution side, it’s easy to understand why this happens.

Back in my former career (I used to be the senior pastor of a large church) this trend line happened in the late 90’s and into the 00’s. In the mid 90’s a famous large church started advocating for a new church role, the role of the executive pastor (note: large protestant churches over 1,000 or more are a new phenomenon in church history). This idea rapidly caught on. Why? Because the last thing senior pastors who were good at one skill set (preaching and teaching) wanted to do was what they weren’t good at (leading and managing a large organization). In one fell swoop they could get rid of most of the stuff they didn’t like.

Unfortunately, as you know with systems theory, every change has a negative or unintended consequence(s). One of the negative consequences that has come out of this trend of hiring executive pastors is that it’s taken the primary leader of the church out of the idea execution business. And when the leader of any organization thinks they can simply be “just a leader” all kinds of negative outcomes arise because the primary leader isn’t fully engaged in the management part of the process or taking ideas and making sure they turn into reality.

If you’ve read my book on Breaking Through Plateaus, you know I’m a fan of a number of things Jack Welch did well during his tenure at GE (note: I don’t think he did everything well, so don’t read too much into that statement). Two of those things that I think he did well are that he only had four number one priorities during his two decades of leading GE (i.e. he had one idea that he focused everything on for an average of four to five years at a time) and secondly, that he invested one full day every other week at Crotonville, GE’s leadership development center. In other words, he invested a massive amount of time in developing leaders (i.e. he was fully engaged).

So, if you want to be a great leader who builds a great company, make sure you eliminate the lie that you can be, “just a leader,” and instead invest your time and energy into being a fully engaged leader who is constantly growing their ability to not just dream up ideas, but  to execute them well and turn them into reality. If you’ll do that, you’ve got a great chance at building a great company!

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some stories of leaders whom you thought were good at being both a great leader and a great manager, make sure you share them below in the comments section (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed)