Take Me to Your Leader

Identifying "Functional" Leaders


According to Wikipedia, the expression “take me to your leader” originated in a 1953 cartoon by Alex Graham published in The New Yorker magazine. Since then it has become cliché, a fun cultural catchphrase in popular music and movies.

But here are two serious questions: If an alien arrived at your workplace saying, “Take me to your leader” …

To whom would you take them?

Would you be that leader?

Knowing where to look for leadership matters because...

  • In times of risk or uncertainty, following the right leader can be the difference between success and failure.
  • Having the right role models makes a difference if you are working to enhance your own leadership.

To seek out leaders, most of us simply look up the organization chart toward those with titles like supervisor, manager, or executive. It’s a habit conditioned by our shared history in school, at work, even in our families. The label "leader" is automatically applied to those in positions that grant them formal authority over us. And it is generally accepted that those within their sphere of control, their "subordinates", will defer to the direction and demands of the "boss".

My first formal leadership role though taught me an important lesson: promotion to a position of authority, becoming the boss, doesn’t make you a leader, someone others will follow willingly. (See the video: A Personal Leadership Story)

I’ll bet you have learned that lesson too. We've all observed leaders for a lifetime, mostly unaware just how much our beliefs and assumptions about leadership were shaped by these role models from our past. Their lessons were often unspoken, but still powerful.

For 30+ years, I’ve asked workshop participants to look at their leader role models, identifying the "Best" and "Worst" of them from their past. Many so-called leaders nominated as "Worst" had a title and position of authority but led poorly. They were the boss and were labeled as "leader", but left people around them unclear where they were headed and unwilling to follow. Just as important, many workshop participants share that their "Best" leader role model was not a boss at all, holding no formal title or position and no real authority. Others looked to these individuals for leadership anyway because they seemed to know where to go and inspired confidence in others that they could get there.

Boss and subordinate are not synonyms for leader and follower. It’s important to differentiate between the boss or “formal” leader, and true “functional” leaders. Formal leaders are expected to lead their team toward business success. But too many don't actually lead effectively. You see evidence of that in poor results, failed plans, lagging staff engagement, low morale, and high turnover in their teams.

Functional Leadership = Results + Relationships

Don’t get me wrong; some of the best leaders I work with are formal leaders. But these great formal leaders distinguish themselves not because of their title or position, but because they do two things every true, functional leader must do.

First, functional leadership is about Results. With a firm understanding of what’s happening around them, true leaders see a better future, share their vision of that future in a clear and compelling way, then offer a confidence inspiring path to get there. Their commitment to the results they envision is confirmed by the actions they take, focusing effort and resources on needed change or smoothing the way forward.

These leaders are obviously going somewhere and doing what they must along the way to deliver results. Anyone not doing that is not actually leading, no matter what their title or position happens to be. The focus of functional leaders may be large, even changing the world. But, the future most envision is much more modest, the results they pursue more commonplace, perhaps...

  • Attaining a challenging business goal, whether strategic or operational.
  • Completing a project, from delivering a report to completing a repair, and everything in between.
  • Implementing new ideas or practices, changing the way things get done.
  • Enhancing the productivity of a team so their talent and time are applied more effectively.
  • Helping others develop new capability, enhancing their knowledge, skills or experience.

They just do their job. Their goals don't have to be large or their contributions exceptional, but they need to matter. When you look for functional leaders, look first for results, especially a history of delivering them reliably over time. If you can’t wait for results to prove who is leading, look around for people who are…

  • Constantly aware of their situation, anticipating problems or opportunities then ready to offer a way forward when others don’t.
  • Making progress by collaborating with anyone who has a stake in shared goals, solving problems creatively, negotiating commitments to work together, then holding everyone, including themselves, accountable for performing as promised.
  • Volunteering their knowledge, expertise, and support to help anyone willing to apply themselves to the pursuit of desired results.
  • Making clear requests of others, listening carefully to their concerns, then offering fair value in exchange for their cooperation rather than resorting to coercion or manipulation to get what they want.
  • Setting an example of what it takes to succeed, stepping up responsibly when others hesitate, acting rather than complaining, moving forward without excuse, and ready to learn what they must to make the right things happen.

The second thing that distinguishes functional leaders is that they deliver the results they seek through Relationships. Heading off toward a better future alone does not make you a leader. If you can produce what’s needed on your own, you don't need to lead—just go do it. Leadership though is always about engaging others, about turning the right people into followers.

As the challenges a leader takes on grow in scope, velocity, or complexity, there comes a point where they can't possibly know everything, be everywhere, or do it all. To succeed, a functional leader extends their reach by building and sustaining influential connections with followers then borrowing the capacity and capability they have to offer. Potential followers include…

  • Performers who bring competence and commitment to do the work required; and,
  • Stakeholders to provide the access, resources, or support needed to get that work done.

To find functional leaders look for followers, the number and quality of people who believe the leader is…

  • Credible and competent, someone whose actions match their words, who is willing to do what they can but aware of their own limitations and working constantly to expand them.
  • Trusted, counted on to be respectful and reliable, earning influence with others over time by demonstrating consideration for others and acting authentically with them.
  • A capable coach sought out for their direction or support, someone skilled at developing the competence and confidence of others without interfering unnecessarily in their work.
  • A champion of both performers and performance, cultivating a workplace culture in which people can expect the leader's help to get what they need from their work while knowing they will be held accountable for doing that work.
  • A worthy guide who speaks truthfully about what’s happening, focuses attention on what matters most, then gets involved doing it with an energy that inspires others to pitch in.

Making a distinction between between formal and functional leadership is not just semantics. The boss/subordinate mindset is deep-seated, affecting our decisions and actions in many subtle and unhelpful ways. If what you believe about leading says it is mostly about position or title, about being the boss in control with authority over underlings, then you might...

  • Assume only those with the right title can set direction or take charge, when in many circumstances others are actually more qualified to do so.
  • Defer to formal leaders even when you know they are headed down the wrong path.
  • Try to manage or supervise others when leading them would produce better results.
  • Work too hard at being the "boss" when you, your team, and organization would benefit more if you became a better leader.

If you hold a formal leadership position, learn as much as you can about managing and supervising. There are times when every leader is challenged to step up, take charge, and use whatever authority they have available to make things happen. But being the "boss" shouldn’t be a habit and can’t be your only option.

Anyone can lead. If you want to get results reliably in a modern workplace, work at becoming a functional leader whatever your position or level in the organization. People need leadership. Not all the time, but especially when things are volatile, uncertain, or ambiguous – you know, your normal workday.

There is always someone who can’t see what’s coming, has little idea what needs to be done, doesn’t know how to do it, or lacks the confidence to just get on with it. Those people need someone to guide them through a sometimes chaotic environment where there is little tolerance for poor performance or just “doing what we’ve always done”. And when execution really matters, they must feel trusted enough by the leaders around them to take the initiative and do their best work believing their efforts won’t be punished if things don’t work out.

True leaders also learn too how to attract the right kind of followers. The leader/follower connection is a matter of choice, on both sides. You first must choose to step up, telling others the results you envision and offering a path toward them. Others will watch, then make their own choice: to follow you or not. If they fall in with you, believing you worthy of their help and support, then you are leading. If you look around and no one is headed in the direction you set, then you are not leading. The position or title you hold will matter little either way. Ultimately, organizations don't choose their functional leaders; true leaders and their followers do.

And When That Alien Shows Up...

Don’t be distracted by title or position. Look for individuals doing what it takes to deliver results. Then look at the people around them, at the number and quality of performers and stakeholders who choose to follow their lead. Better yet, be one of those leaders yourself. Functional leadership is needed to achieve challenging goals or guide teams and organizations through crisis. The people around you and your organization need that kind of leadership right now.

Placing This Leadership Anchor...

Consider just a few reasons why this distinction might matter to you or your organization...

* Center for Creative Leadership

Leadership Anchors

In climbing, the “lead” is first up, setting the path or route. Along the way, the lead places “anchors”, points of attachment to provide “protection” for them and others who follow, freeing all to use their talents confidently and competently.

Our Leadership Anchors are habits and hacks for leading. With the right anchors in place and used well, you will be better able to apply your unique strengths and style to the challenge of delivering results by leading others.

Ask us how our coaching can help you function as a better leader, on the job, where it matters.

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