What it Really Takes to Lead

Leader's helping hand

This is the one characteristic that distinguishes a leader from a manager. Learn what underpins all other leadership skills.

What’s your management style?  Seems like a basic question, I know.  However, the way a person answers it reveals a lot about their level of self-awareness.  This is because managers rarely receive objective feedback from their team.  It doesn’t matter how open to constructive criticism we think we are; the fact is that people who report to us hesitate to share what they really think for obvious reasons.  To find the true answer, we need to look inward.

Before you ponder the question too much, let’s apply a template that covers the most common management types.  If you study organizational dynamics as much as I have, you’ll find a seemingly limitless collection of leadership models.  There are plenty of diagrams made by management consultants and B-School professors to convey the elements of leadership – none with less than 8 different headings.  I even saw a matrix with 20 different categories!  The author must have been paid by the word.

Because I work in the real world, I rely on just 3 management models to quickly assess a team leader’s performance.  And to make it simple, they all begin with the letter C.


The first one can be described as the typical top-down management approach.  A command-style manager tends to direct the activities of her team members.  She also decides which goals are to be pursued and works to keep everyone on the team focused on them.  But it may be surprising to know that this manager also takes total accountability for the outcome and never allows an individual team member to be blamed for a mistake or missed goal.  This type of manager balances her authority for making the big decisions with accepting personal responsibility for the team’s performance.


The coach supports the technical work of the team members through training and feedback.  Coaches will jointly determine with their team which goals to pursue, rather than select them on their own.  And a coach shares accountability equally with his team members.  He never takes singular credit for wins and always shares the blame for misses.  While this type of manager practices a more collaborative approach than the commander, he still takes responsibility as a contributor.


The coordinator is focused on supporting the team’s efforts but doesn’t set the direction.  He provides resources the members need to perform their work independently.  Rather than choosing the goals, a coordinator is communicating direction coming from a higher level of the organization.  And when it comes to performance, the coordinator monitors & reports on the team’s progress without taking accountability for the outcome.  Of the three types, this one only works in a middle-management role.

Now, there’s room to dive into the characteristics of each type and certainly debate which model works best in a given system.  But before you grind on that, allow me to share the single most important aspect of managing other people. 

This is the part that distinguishes a leader from a manager, and you can refer to it as the fourth C –   Compassion.

I don’t use this word casually.  It describes the ability to recognize that the people you work with are fellow human beings with their own motivations, concerns, and experiences.  Communicating and engaging with your team members on that basis represents an actual skill that underpins all other leadership techniques.

This is what compassion looks like in day-to-day practice:

Attention!  When someone approaches their manager with a question or for help solving a problem, the leader drops what she’s doing and listens.  She doesn’t stare at her screen or continue doing whatever task she was engaged with while the person is speaking to her. If the team member messaged her the question, the leader doesn’t quickly fire off a curt response without taking the time to understand the question.  And she composes an answer that’s clear, thorough, and respectful.

Body Language. A leader doesn’t show exasperation or frustration on his face, no matter how he feels in the moment.  Instead, he makes the effort to convey interest and respect for the other person through his facial expressions and body language.  A compassionate leader conveys cheerful enthusiasm or thoughtful calmness based on what’s happening at the time.  My favorite stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s illustrates this best:  “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

Knowing the Individual. A leader gets to know the individual members of her team and shows genuine interest in them.  The researcher, Marcus Buckingham explains this in his book, Love + Work.  He writes, “… the point of a team is not to make each individual conform to the needs of the team. Instead, it is to create the conditions in which each member’s unique contributions can best help the team achieve its goals.”

Conventional wisdom directs that we should keep our personal life separate from our work life. That’s unrealistic. We all have a need to be seen and to be known by the people we spend our time with.  A leader’s role is to recognize each member’s strengths and motivations to help the team accomplish shared goals.  The only way to do this is to know your people.

None of what’s described here is easy.  It shouldn’t be.  When someone chooses to lead, she’s taking on the responsibility for organizing the efforts of a group (rather than just her own).  That requires a level of emotional maturity and self-awareness that only comes from purposeful practice.  Just because you’ve been given a title or own a business that employs others, doesn’t automatically make you a leader.

With training and the right opportunities, almost anyone can become a manager.  But only with compassion can someone be a leader.