Last week I coached an experienced sales leader as part of the follow up on a Leadership Development course he attended.  We were getting along fine, finding much to agree on over how dysfunctional the human race is becoming, the immigration crisis etc., and then he said something which threw me a bit.

“Now that I don’t have a team of people reporting to me, I don’t see myself as a leader.”

I didn’t see that one coming.  As you can imagine, that comment gave us plenty more to talk about.

It has got me wondering, though, how many others are confused about the difference between leading and managing people.  Do you have to have a team reporting to you before you can describe yourself as a leader?

In my view, certainly not.  I think that once you can walk and talk you can be a leader, and in fact can think of numerous examples of leadership by young people.  I used to teach the clarinet and saxophone, and many of my pupils were starters, ie age 8 or so.  There was the boy who so enjoyed learning that he encouraged his younger brother to make a start by learning the recorder.  The one who was honest enough to say he would rather learn the guitar, thus challenging his parents’ vision of what a good use of teenage spare time consists of.

You can read ten books on leadership and get ten different definitions of it, but one which works for me is that a leader is someone who inspires others to follow.   (A useful definition of a manager, by contrast, is someone who is paid to execute on a plan.)  If you take that leadership definition, then you start to see it all around you.  Recent seasonal examples you may have seen could include:


  • the person who helped the younger people with their Christmas presents before opening his own (coaching, self management, empathy)
  • the person who went without item x at the dinner table in order to ensure that the guests had what they wanted (self management, selflessness)
  • the person who suggested the party game because she saw that others were bored, even though she would have been happier reading her book ( situational awareness, selflessness).

Anyone can be a leader, and it is something you earn rather than have awarded to you.

Coming back to where I started this article:  is it at all significant that a 53 year old experienced, intelligent and high performing professional in a technology company should be confused about what leadership is?  Is it another worrying sign of what is happening in society, ie that we are losing sight of the basics?

I know I bang this drum far too often, and the start of a new year is not the best time to be fostering doom and gloom.  However, on the positive side, we can all do something about this. (Have a look at some of the business skills training services I can offer to help you over the coming year and beyond).

My call to action, if I may, is to urge you, dear reader, to treat 2017 as a back to basics year. Let’s put more emphasis on doing the basics right:  building connections between people, helping them to find meaning in what they do, and doing our part as leaders to fight the incoming technological tide with some emotional intelligence and some dignity.

My warmest wishes to you and your families for peace, health and happiness.

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