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Posted: May 21, 2012

The leader and the guy in charge

They're rarely one and the same

David Sneed

I don’t usually write about leadership, primarily because I don’t fully understand it. I think I get caught up in the definition. You, dear reader, can help me to learn.

Usually a list of leadership traits describes the guy in charge, not necessarily a leader.  The guy in charge and the leader aren’t the same thing. They CAN be, of course, but I don’t see that very often.

So I guess a person first needs to decide if they want to be the leader, or be the guy in charge. You’ll need different qualities for each.

Take the Broncos, for instance. Pat Bolen is in charge, but is he the leader? Can he say something to the team which will make them play harder? I don’t think so. What about the Coach Fox? He’s in charge of the team, but he’s trying to motivate guys who earn more than he does. What can he say? He can design plays, and choose who starts, but can he make them play harder? Ultimately he’s just managing personalities and planning the offense - while trying to stay out of the way.

The real leader of the Broncos is the guy who can get everyone to achieve something which they otherwise wouldn’t. It will be a player who shows, by the force of his desire to succeed, how to win - and his obvious attitude that it’s the team that matters, not him as an individual. The leader’s name isn’t important, it’s the organizational goal that matters - and the leader gets everyone to buy into that philosophy and reach the end.

Meanwhile, this same player who can get the team to win might fail as Pat Bolen or Coach Fox. He has leadership ability, but not necessarily what it takes to be in charge.

So I’m putting this as my number one on the list of Leadership myths: The guy in charge is the leader.

If Susie in Accounting can rally the entire company around an unwelcome new policy, than Susie is your company’s leader. Without her on board, the CEO is not going to be effective.

But Susie may be on the wrong team. By the force of her personality she can be a negative influence, nay saying every suggestion and getting the staff to go along with her. In this case, Susie has to go. Her leadership has gone to the dark side, the manipulative side, and cannot be tolerated in a workplace.

But if Susie is benevolent and wise, the CEO will need to recognize Susie’s power and harness it. Any idiot in charge can make his assistant type faster, but not everyone can make her WANT to type faster.  Any CEO can use his authority to scare his people into making more sales, but how many can get achieve those results because of WHO he is rather than WHAT he is? That guy is a leader; the first guy is the boss.

Susie, you may make minimum wage, and you may not get any credit, but you are a leader. Any one of us can become you without being the CEO. The qualities you have are the real leadership traits. So what are they - and can they be learned?

That’s what I ask myself, and I’m still working on an answer. My first thought is that INFLUENCE is the primary leadership trait. If you can influence people to see your goal and reach it, you are the real leader. Do you disagree?

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

I don't want to get to "touchy/feely" here, however, I will say that it is different for each person. What may touch me to follow you may not resonate at all with my peer. I"m sure that empathy is part of it but it goes deeper than that. It definitely involves passion. Love, if you will, in all of its forms, is the strongest and longest lasting "thing." By Michelle on 2012 05 24
Agree. What is that "thing" that inspires loyalty? I'm guessing empathy is one part, what else? By David Sneed on 2012 05 23
A real leader, one that impacts the lives of their followers; that makes a lasting impression and brings about real change - is one that does so by inspiring loyalty. They find that "thing" inside of their teammates that motivates them to follow the leader into the depths of hell, if need be. Leaders who think that motivation by fear is the way to accomplish their goals will find short term satisfaction. They will never have the true loyalty that inspiring the heart instills. By Michelle on 2012 05 23
A bit more - For generations there have been debates about the concise definition of leadership. The truth is -- it DEPENDS. Leadership definitions are dependent on the team, situation, fate, timing, or definitions of success and most certainly upon the width or height of your travails. Additionally, it depends if you are speaking of leadership in the arena of business, military, science, religion or politics with striking differences evident between frontline and back office leaders. And, it depends on whether you’re seeking a descriptor of leaders who are edgy or plain-Jane, powerful or powerless, figureheads or headless figures. By Chase LeBlanc on 2012 05 21
D, does this help? Character - The aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing. Their moral or ethical quality – AKA a values attraction or positive pull based upon how one “is” being in the world. Conditions - A particular mode of being of a person or thing; existing state; situation with respect to circumstances. AKA – is the environment worth the returns of effort or good faith (pay, learning & development, safety, recognition, trust, etc.) By Chase LeBlanc on 2012 05 21
You lost me at "hello," Chase. What are the "character & conditions" that are representative of future success? That is what I am searching for, the defining characteristics of leadership. By David Sneed on 2012 05 21
At the beginning or in the end, leadership is simply the business of flag flying. I’m using “flag flying” as a metaphor for the “things” you provide when one is “in” the role of “being” a leader. It has been my experience that many underestimate the power of “how you are” – which in most cases is equally important to “what you do” -If you empower others and foster an environment of trust and can also get projects done on time, scope and within the budget – what you do, and how you are (both) - travels before and after you. It becomes your “standard” or “flag” – folks are more readily inclined to be attracted by (AKA follow) personal/professional “flags” with clear representations of past success (competence & completion) and/or (character & conditions) as representatives of future success. By Chase LeBlanc on 2012 05 21
Influence is certainly part of the equation. But leadership is more than just influencing others to do something. I think that to be a leader, you must go first. You must do the things that others don't want to do, in order to show how it is done. So in addition to influence, I would add motivation and education (of other people) as added parts of the leadership equation. And I agree with you....leadership is a very difficult characteristic to define. No single definition seems to work in all instances or with all leaders. By Fred Wellers on 2012 05 21
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