Leaders vs. Leading

One of my favorite television shows is Inside the Actors Studio.

It is a long-form interview show, where a famous actor or actress is interviewed for about an hour.

The show is filmed before a live audience consisting of students at a well-known film school.

What I like about the show is that it gets into real depth with the actor.

They talk about their life story, early influences, and the technical work they did that led them to this point in their career.

What I have found fascinating about the show is the common themes I hear from the many Academy Award winners that have been interviewed on the show.

The common refrain is that young actors today don’t want to be great actors. They just want to be famous ones.

These exceptionally successful actors all universally talk about "working on their craft” — their actual underlying acting skills.

All of them spend years (and in many cases, decades) taking classes, practicing their acting, and otherwise honing their skills.

I like that they reveal this information because in the popular media, it merely appears they were an overnight success that came out of nowhere.

I’m sure they got their lucky breaks at some point, but the key thing I noticed was they were prepared when they got their opportunity.

This reminds me of the quote, “Luck is opportunity met with preparedness.”

I completely agree.

There’s a similar dynamic at work in the business world.

Everybody wants to be the “boss” or leader.

I want to be in charge.

I want to be the boss.

I want to be the startup CEO.

What all these desires have in common is a desire to have either power, authority, or status.

What’s often missing from these assertions is any real desire to be good at the actual skills of knowing how to LEAD.

It’s the business world equivalent of wanting to be a famous actor versus a great actor.

Most people think that after you get designated the leader, then you get to lead.

That is not how it works.

The famous actor doesn’t get famous first, and then become a great actor second. They become great actors first, and then they become famous for being good.

Similarly, leaders lead before they become “The Leader" in any formal sense.

This is a useful distinction.

So what is it that “leaders” do behaviorally well before they become “The Leader”?

There are several specific actions:

1) Leaders notice problems and take responsibility for figuring out how to solve them (as opposed to pointing out problems to “The Leader” and asking him or her what to do next).

As I teach my kids, “You can be a problem solver or a problem talker (as in you talk about and point out problems)”. Leaders are problem solvers.

2) Leaders manage to outcomes... not to task lists.

A follower will get his 10-item checklist done and consider his work complete. A leader knows the task list is irrelevant if the objective has not been achieved.

Followers are task-oriented, while leaders are results-oriented.

If you’re a marketer and you did a great marketing campaign, you think you did a great job.

If the money your marketing campaign was supposed to generate never actually ended up in the company bank account, the leader figures out why and solves the problem. The follower says, "That’s not my job."

3) Leaders question. Followers (often blindly) accept.

A leader will refuse to implement a bad idea without challenging it, questioning it, and understanding it.

Followers will often implement a stupid decision someone more senior than them makes, even if they know it is a bad idea.

(At a minimum, a leader will object, challenge, and ask the powers that be if they’re really sure they want to do something that doesn’t make any sense.)

Looking back on my own career, I’ve been a “leader” well before I ever became “The Leader.”

When I worked for others, I was often very annoying (in a good and productive way).

I got into heated debates with the C-level executives that I reported to.

I challenged them. I objected. I disagreed passionately. I argued. I fought with them.

At the time, I thought for sure they would fire me. (I figured, “Oh what the hell, I can always go back and work at McKinsey if they do.”)

For the life of me, I simply refused to carry out stupid decisions. I’d rather be fired than have my name attached to something that makes no sense.

Much to my surprise, I kept getting promoted... repeatedly.

Unbeknownst to me, many of my colleagues thought I’d be CEO of the company someday (even though I was 2-3 levels below the CEO at the time).

In hindsight, the reason they said that was because I was actually leading.

To be clear, I was NOT being “bossy” or throwing around power I did not possess. (That’s a really good way to piss people off).

Rather, I was thoughtful and only agreed with good ideas, as opposed to all ideas that came from people with more power than me.

(As an aside, I also made the wise choice to work for companies with company cultures that valued these behaviors. Many company cultures do not want lower level employees to take initiative or lead. They want lower level employees to keep their mouth shut and do what they are told. These cultures are not well suited to people who want to rise quickly in their careers because they reward obedience, rather than leadership.)

My Thought for the Day:

Are you waiting to be “The Leader” before you lead, or are you leading so someday you’ll become “The Leader”?

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1 comment… add one
  • Shawna-Kaye Dec 18, 2018, 8:24 pm

    I love this article. I had a similar conversation with a colleague some weeks ago. It can be difficult to find good contractors to work with, because so many people are focused on how to be famous for what they do vs. excellent at what they do. Thanks for sharing! I will personally be working on #2: Manage for outcomes.

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