Leaders are charismatic, inspirational, and trustworthy. They have a vision. They are good communicators, good listeners, good problem solvers, etc., etc. Look up the word “leader” or “leadership” and you will find a list of traits or attributes that make someone a leader. I don’t argue that good leaders possess some of these characteristics and skills. But, that is not what actually makes someone a leader. You are a leader if someone else chooses to follow you. Period! There are many examples of terrible leaders who have led people into disastrous situations. Cult leaders like Jim Jones whose followers in Jonestown poisoned themselves or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas or Heaven’s Gate in San Diego are horrifying examples. There are certainly many examples of gang leaders who have led young people into crime and prisons or to their death. Unscrupulous televangelists lead gullible, lonely people into poverty. There is, undoubtedly, a lot of power at work with many of these people. Why people choose to follow them is still, in many ways, a mystery. But follow them, they do. And, it is important to recognize that in every case, there is an element of choice. No matter how powerful the person may seem to be, there is a limit to that power. There are always choices. Those choices may not be obvious. They may not be very attractive, but there are choices. For every person who follows a cult leader, there are many who do not. For every young person who follows the gang leader, there are some who do not. There are those who watch the televangelist and don’t send money. No one knows all of the reasons people make these decisions but it is important to know that they have their reasons.
We all know that managers who rule with coercive power often enjoy short term success
It is not that hard to get people to work faster for short periods of time. “Do this or else,” works as long as people haven’t figured out how to avoid the “or else.” There is, of course, always a cost to this kind of management. Aside from the obvious consequences of resentment, suspicion, and poor morale, more subtle outcomes start to eat away at the organization’s effectiveness. People become lethargic, or engage in subtle sabotage, or become overtly hostile, they make mistakes, hide problems, look busy doing nothing, etc., etc. Probably the most destructive outcome is that people withhold information. They don’t tell the boss what’s going on. Over time, the boss will become isolated and start making poor decisions. Some managers are able to sustain this for longer periods of time by skilful political manipulation. They create diversions, lie, shift blame, and so on. They often move around quickly so that someone else has to clean up their mess. But, the cost to the organization is considerable. This kind of “leadership” can only take an organization so far. If the business conditions demand creativity, collaboration, leaner operations, more skill and teamwork, the manager who has relied on coercive power is in trouble. No amount of coercive power can force a creative idea from someone. No amount of vigilance can make up for a loss of motivation or entrepreneurial spirit. In short, this is a self-limiting system. The organization cannot perform beyond the limits of the intelligence and energy of the boss. This is a formula for mediocrity.
Understanding that leadership is given to you rather than something that you can possess also raises the question of unintended leadership
You may become a leader even though that was not your plan. This often happens in teams with poor supervisors or managers. People stop listening to their official boss and look to others whom they find more competent or trustworthy. The real leader then is not the supervisor but the one “appointed” by the team members. It can also happen by design in self-directed work teams in which leadership moves from team member to team member depending on the task at hand and the skills and expertise needed at that time.
In leadership training it is important to stress that learning all the leadership skills does not make you a leader any more than being promoted to manager will. The only way that you become a leader is to earn it from those you hope to lead. It is their decision. You are certainly more likely to be “hired” as their leader if you have worked hard to learn about the business, the technology, and your company’s product or service. You are more likely to be respected if you learn the leadership skills and use them consistently. People who listen, respectfully hold others accountable, and seek win/win solutions to conflicts are more likely to be followed than those who don’t. In any case, it is a gift. Leadership is bestowed upon you by those led. Understanding that will help you understand how fragile organizational titles can be. The leaders who last are those who understand who is in charge.
So, to answer the question, “Am I a leader?” you need to look in the rear view mirror and see if anybody is there. If no one is there, you are not a leader no matter how many titles or skills you have. If when you look back, there is even a single person there, you have a responsibility to lead with competence and integrity.