Leader vs. Leadership: A Vital Distinction for Success

Leadership Bookshelf

Why we are so disappointed in our leaders?

We expect leaders to possess superhuman strengths, clairvoyance, sound judgment, integrity and charisma that most of us may personally lack. We are quick to criticize and become disappointed when those above us on the organization chart fail to meet these expectations.

As an antidote, there are tens of thousands of books and articles that give advice to those leaders to promote our fantasies of what leaders should be.

False Hope?

Yet today’s leader’s impact on behavior (as evidenced by the general level of leadership in corporations and the government) demonstrate that thee intended improvements from books and training have failed to materialize.

In short, despite the investment of billions of dollars each year on leadership development, the needle has failed to move much.

Rather than continuing to be disappointed on such a massive scale, perhaps we should develop a more effective set of best-practices in leadership development.

Rather than promote leaders as paragons and then be disappointed when they are not, I recommend we shift how we think about leaders in the first place and then change how we do leadership development.

Redefining “Leader”

A “Leader” is a person. When we focus on leader, we evaluate individual capabilities and hope that the individual uses the information to improve their performance. Sometimes we provide additional support to help the person make the change.

This is the medical model for leadership development:

Determine what is broken and then fix it.

A variation on the model is to find the person’s strengths and encourage them to exhibit more of them. The reasons these approaches don’t work are many and could itself be a future whitepaper. Some are explained in this webinar with Training Magazine Network.

Redefine “Leadership”

Rather than defining leadership as hierarchical, what if we saw it

  • As a corporate function similar to HR and Finance that has…
  • Three measurable deliverables: Direction, competence, and implementation…
  • That are completed not but just the people at the top…but is a shared responsibility…
  • That people complete by using processes that many have learned and by
  • Using the best organization/leadership language and tools…
  • That people have learned in  practice fields in which people use the new language and tools to address the existing strategic challenges
  • We are able to work across silos as a network of leaders who are closely bonded together because they jointly are responsible for the three deliverables, use common processes, language, and tools, and have had shared experience/competence/and confidence to work on the complex issues that matter.

Redefine Leadership Practice

Then we could…

  • Reduce individual competency/personality assessment
  • Focus on the strategic needs of the organization and not individual development needs
  • Create a stronger connection between leader development and improved organization performance
  • Rely less on the capacities of a few individuals and instead build organization-wide resilience
  • Move from leadership development activities which have demonstrated limited impact on organization performance to practices which help organizations more directly achieve strategic objectives
  • Build organizations that can more readily adapt to change
  • More easily able to re-engage employees who for far too long have focused on survival and not thriving
  • Significantly reduce the waste of time and money on analysis and instead focus on effective collective action

For specific ideas for new leadership tools and language,  check out these tools in The Leader’s Toolbox

The Implications:

Organization consultants, Human Resources and organization development professionals will need to realign their products and services to deliver more powerful products and services.

We need to stop writing about the trivial, have the fortitude to face the facts, realign our deliverables to clients/internal customers, and focus more fastidiously on outcome rather than process results.

This will requires the fortitude to say to ourselves that we have been less than successful and embrace the willingness to take on something new.

Recalibrated Leadership Mindset

In 1995 after having used the conventional leadership methodologies, I woke up one morning and realized this:

  • No one had ever thanked me for providing 360-degree competency feedbacks
  • No senior leader ever asked me when we were going to do the next one
  • I could never tie business results with organization performance

I faced the fact that my work had been less effective than I wanted. I contacted a number of peers who experienced the same. I then spent five years writing Leading for a Change: How to Master the Five Challenges Faced by Every Leader as a way to find a more productive framework.

I no longer provide competency or personality assessments as part of leadership training focusing instead on practical language and tools to do the leadership work.

Do you agree with the above analysis? If you disagree, I would be interested in your perspective?  What are the implications of these insights for the way you practice leadership development? What other models or approaches might be more effective? What do you think would help the profession move toward more effective development approaches. I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Ralph Jacobson

Ralph Jacobson is the founder of The Leader’s Toolbox
He provides a powerful platform for change through Coaching, Training & Consulting
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Lernnart Thornros on December 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Great article Ralph. There are a few issues I might have other opinions about but if we narrow your definition to corporate leaders I am very much in agreement. I am trying to say that there are factors beyond your definition that can be of value.
    I am absolute of the same opinion when it comes to the evaluation and assessment practices. I think most people agree with you. It has about the same value as a business plan. That of course makes it something tangible and therefore it feels good in a world that is full of abstracts. It is much harder to be precise with immediate results (outcome). It is part of our culture to have the immediate response (reward).
    I personally believe we need to make organizations smaller. It is our downfall that we have built those enormous organizations both in private and public sector. In my opinion nobody can lead such very large organizations. Thomas Jefferson who was a smart guy said that already 200 years ago. It has not changed but it is so much easier to not fail (I did not say succeed) in a large organization so it is convenient and it prevents change, which we all have a built in scare for. In today’s information society there is no need for large organizations. Small organizations can take on as large and/or complex tasks.

  2. ENNA A. BACHELOR on December 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm

  3. maconsultancy on December 19, 2013 at 8:36 am

  4. ramakrishnan6002 on December 19, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.