Leaders don't have to be managers

Managers have two functions that are based on the formal role that they fulfill in an organization:

  1. they have to complete the formal and informal administrative tasks that are required by either an internal mandate or an external legal or regulatory requirement, and
  2. they can issue commands and directives based on their positional authority.

Both of these functions are specific to the manager role.

The leadership functions are different. Leadership behaviors can be performed by anyone, regardless of rank, position, or title. None of the leadership functions are required of managers – some managers only use command-and-control and administrative behaviors (to their detriment as leaders).  Any manager who aspires to be successful with their team needs to choose, learn, and practice the behaviors that make up the roles of the leader.

My set of Roles of the Leader includes:

  • The Experimenter – who tests innovative ideas, stops unneeded or obsolete activities, changes old habits, and "doubles down" on promising new products, services, and ways of working.
  • The Coach – asks good questions, empowers employees, and hardly ever gives advice. (Advice is often command-and-control in a passive-aggressive disguise.)
  • The Team Builder – doesn't just try the traditional "fun activity at the beginning of a meeting," but instead works to build a team that has a balance of necessary skills and that does great work collaboratively.  
  • The Workplace Designer – creates "the best workplace on earth," whether physical, virtual, or psychological; supports a workplace where team members can thrive and bring their whole selves to work.
  • The Servant – focuses on individual autonomy and personal growth for the people on the team, and positive contribution to the well-being of the communities to which the team belongs.

None of these roles require management authority. In great teams, every member plays a role and adds to the overall mix.  Peers, partners, teammates, friends: they all can fulfill any of these roles, either in a given situation or on an ongoing basis. All these leadership roles can be learned, and they can be used by managers and non-managers alike.  

Managers do have one advantage: they have authority, tools, and resources available that non-managers don't have.  If you are a manager, you can use your resources to increase your leadership impact – but management is not a requirement for being a leader.

A leadership example: coaching by asking good questions

Asking good questions instead of giving advice takes practice. When someone comes to us with a problem, our default response is to solve the problem by giving advice.  With practice, we can learn to turn off our fix-it response. Even then, asking good questions is not easy.

Often, new coaches use a question that starts with, "Have you tried . . . ?"  OK, so that is legitimately a question. But is isn't really coaching; it is another example of advice in disguise.  Think back to a time where your boss or manager said to you, "Have you tried . . . ?"  I'll bet that question felt a lot like a directive and not just a piece of advice.

Great coaches are curious. They ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions that help to clarify a situation or help a person consider alternatives.

One simple way to improve your coaching questions is to start with the word "What." For example, these are all open-ended, non-advice-giving questions that a coach can use to help a person clarify a problem:  

  • "What would you like to do to try to resolve this?"
  • "What would be a good outcome here for you?"
  • "What would you like to see happen?"
  • "What else are you worried about?"  
  • "What help do you need from me?"

Compare these questions that start with "Why?" As a kid, and interestingly also for an adult in science, "why" questions are the best: "Why is the sky blue?" "Why did that mold grow on that petri dish?" "Why did it rain when the low pressure front came through?"

In coaching, though, "why" questions are often accusatory or controlling at best:  

  • "Why did you do it that way?
  • "Why didn't you try ___________?"
  • "Why didn't you come to me for ideas?"
  • "Why did that fail so quickly?

In your next coaching session or coffee chat, try asking curious questions that start with "What. . . ."  and see what happens.

Today's post is just a brief introduction to the power of good coaching. For a lot more on this topic, I highly recommend Michael Bungay Stanier's book, The Coaching Habit. I have used the material in his book in my classes and in my own personal coaching, and I can attest to the transformative power of his ideas. Please check it out!  

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA