Becoming a leader

By Tony Malaj, Sr. Program Manager

An assortment of items ranging from a business bag and glasses on top of an Indigo Slate gradient.

Companies often create a leadership team within their organizational structure to enable vertical decision making and execution across teams. This group becomes responsible for setting the organization’s vision and defining the alignment framework for delivering that vision. Because the leadership team is empowered to turn goals into achievable outcomes, its members are frequently selected from the company’s most well-seasoned senior managers. But is being a good manager the same as being a good leader? If not, how do good managers become the leaders they need to be? 

Harvard Business School professor Joseph B. Fuller, in his analysis of the term management, says, “Management is getting the confused, misguided, unmotivated, and misdirected to accomplish a common purpose on a regular, recurring basis.”1 In other words, Prof. Fuller supports the theory that management is more tied to tactical implementation toward a goal. With success being the ultimate metric by which everyone’s work is measured, managers aren’t responsible just for the technical execution of projects, programs, and process under their purview, they must manage the human element as well.  

On the other hand, Professor John P. Kotter, also of Harvard Business School, describes leadership as “the creation of positive, non-incremental change, including the creation of a vision to guide that change—a strategy—the empowerment of people to make the vision happen despite obstacles, and the creation of a coalition of energy and momentum that can move that change forward.” Professor Fuller adds, “I think the ultimate intersection between leadership and management is an appreciation for what motivates and causes individuals to behave the way they do, and the ability to draw out the best of them with a purpose in mind.”2

Management and leadership, then, are not the same thing. Effective, efficient leadership is central to guiding change—we can’t innovate while employing the same methods and thinking we’ve always used. A vision without implementation, though, remains a piece of paper, a dry idea that doesn’t materialize. Managers break the vision into executable pieces and ensure their teams deliver based on the agreed plan. But how do managers become leaders, or we should still believe the old saying that leaders are born and not made?

According to studies by numerous educational institutions, including Harvard Business School, leadership is not an inherent trait, but one created by experience. Successful leaders employ five specific ingredients, which I’ll call 3S-M-E.  

  1. Self-awareness is our ability to recognize and understand our emotions and moods and their effect on others. True leaders are able to fully realize their weaknesses and continuously work to address them, instead of finding a way out and putting pressure on others. They don’t see failure as a negative but as an opportunity to improve.  

  2. Self-regulation, another important must-have for a successful leader, is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods. The propensity to suspend judgment and, therefore, think before acting helps leaders make more grounded decisions that will be adopted by others. Leaders who are good listeners make more informed decisions.  

  3. Social skills to manage relationships and build networks are paramount to successful business development, particularly in a globalized economy with increasingly borderless societies. Leaders find common ground and build rapport with others through such aptitudes as reading body language or blending in other cultures and customs. 

  4. Motivation for true leaders is intrinsic rather than external. Individuals with a passion to work for reasons beyond materialism or social status surround themselves with people who share that motivation and who are eager to succeed. Motivation is contagious.  

  5. Empathy, the ability to understand the emotional situation and overall makeup of other people, remains the line in the sand for great leadership. Leaders read people’s emotional reactions and adjust their actions to fit. Adapting in this way isn’t a weakness but rather a skill that yields results in the long run. People are less likely to follow a leader who’s blind to the emotional states around them.  

Great managers execute with excellence, but great leaders go beyond implementation and bring out the best in the people around them. General Colin Powell said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”3 Using 3S-M-E, managers can train themselves to be successful leaders who hold the confidence of people in their organizations.


Developmental Editor
Diana Ireland

María Forero

culture, strategy

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