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Manager, maybe – Leader, not so much

Sep 12

“A failure in proper leadership has caused the RCMP to be in a life support condition, gasping for air…” – RCMP Member


Is there a difference between a manager and a leader?  This is a question that has not only occupied academics but corporate senior executives for decades.  The consensus seems to be, that management on one hand controls or directs the people and resources in an organization according to established principles or values.  Their job descriptions contain a variety of functions including:  organization; planning; staffing; directing; and, controlling.  Leadership on the other hand, seems more focused on setting a new direction, or establishing a new vision for the group that is lead.  A leader spearheads the new direction and has a job description that is composed of a variety of elements including: heart; passion; transformative thinking; charisma; excitement; integrity; and justice.

In 2009 the RCMP published the results of an Employee Opinion Survey.  The data revealed that nearly 50% of members nationwide did not believe that the Force had competent senior leaders.  I had access to a pool of nearly 50 police persons who had come together to form a support group.  Each member of the group had been mistreated in the workplace in some way; many of them by abusive or incompetent supervisors.  I thought it might be unusual and informative to survey them to determine what they thought the qualities of a good leader were.  Perhaps engaging those who had been the recipients of poor supervision could provide some practical insight into this elusive phenomenon.  On one hand it could be argued that my subjects were a biased sample; but on the other, it could be asserted that there is no better source of information than a victim (or a witness).

“The RCMP did not have forward thinking, strategic leaders over the last 30 years resulting in our current chaotic situation.” – RCMP Member

The method I used was simple; and I don’t pretend it was rigorous, controlled scientific research.  I asked each group member to respond to the question, “What do you think every supervisor should know about supervising?”  I received almost total compliance, with from 3-5 suggestions from each respondent.  I then gave the (anonymous) responses to three (non-police) subject matter experts to be read and sorted into categories.  Interestingly, the sorting process produced 5 qualities that had very little to do with being a good manager and everything to do with being a great leader.

The General Qualities

If this is a topic of interest to you, and you have done some reading in the area, you will know that great leaders are characterized more by variation than a common set of traits or skills.  The responses of the people I surveyed suggested that being a great leader is all about heart.  The following qualities were abstracted from their responses at a general level.

Great leaders should have a deep concern for those they lead

“Ask yourself not what have I done to improve my own circumstance here in the RCMP but what have I done today to help make this a better work environment for my employees?” – RCMP Member

Truly great leaders don’t simply see employees when they look at the members of their organization.  They see individuals with hopes, needs, fears, concerns, families to support, and contributions to make.  They see people who want to make a difference and be recognized for their unique talents.

“Supervisors are there to make sure each of us gets what we need to be successful.” – RCMP Member

Great leaders should have a deep sense of distributive justice

Truly great leaders have a strong sense of, not so much right and wrong but, inequality.  They believe that injustice must never be tolerated.

“I cannot be expected to protect the rights of Canadians, on behalf of my employer, while at the same time being expected to surrender my own.” –
RCMP Member

It is this deep-seated sense of justice that guides their actions with those they lead and those they serve.

“Women work here too, they have for 37 years, time to lift your knuckles off the ground and get over it.  There is important work to do.” – RCMP Member

Great leaders should tolerate fear and take a risk

Truly great leaders work in environments fraught with danger and uncertainty.

“I want you to stand up to the organization on my behalf.  I have broken no laws and done nothing to disgrace this outfit.  Forget about how it will reflect on your career and show some jam.” – RCMP Member

It is natural to assume then, that in such circumstances great leaders are extraordinarily courageous people.  However, it is not the lack of fear that makes a leader great.  It is their ability to act in spite of the fear that sets them apart.  Great leaders are able to recognize the threat, acknowledge the fear, and still choose to act.

“The Force has suffered a failure in leadership at the top for decades.  We need a Commissioner and Senior Executive with the courage to think outside the box.” – RCMP Member

Great leadership should not require a rank or a title

Truly great leaders exist who are not Commissioners, Superintendants, Sergeants, or CEO’s.  Leaders can exist at any level of the organization.

“What happened to you?  When you were a Corporal you really cared about us.  Now you wear a white shirt and you couldn’t care less?” – RCMP Member

Great leaders recognize that their identity as a leader is a receiver based construct; that is, it is given to them by others.  They believe they can lead without a title.  They understand that people don’t follow titles, or ranks, they follow passionate individuals who believe in them and inspire them to greatness.

“The RCMP senior management is asleep at the switch and truly out of touch with what is happening on the shop floor.  Management thinks and only cares about management.  Nepotism is rampant and so predictable.  They are so out of touch it’s embarrassing to be around them let alone trying to digest their PR spin to convince the rank and file things are fine.  They are not fine.” – RCMP Member

Great leaders should view themselves as part of the team

Truly great leaders do not view themselves as being above, or set apart from, those they lead.  They perceive themselves as another component in the system.  They recognize that the system, organization or movement is more than the sum of its parts; and all the parts are necessary to attain the vision.

“Watch an episode of Undercover Boss.  Then you drag your sorry ass out from behind your desk and get a sense of what we do out there and where you really fit.  We all have a job to do, and yours isn’t what you think it is.  We need you to run interference, not get in the way.” – RCMP Member

Great team players inspire those they lead to greatness.  Winston Churchill played a certain role and inspired a nation to greatness, Vince Lombardi played his part and inspired the Green Bay Packers to a dynasty, and the Dalai Lama, a humble monk, has inspired a worldwide spiritual community.

“I work with you, not for you.” – RCMP Member

A Final Thought

The subject matter experts that I referred to above made no claim to being great leaders themselves but they had each, in their own fields, been exposed to great leadership.  Through their analysis of the content of the responses they were able to abstract what they called the “catalytic” quality.  They suggested that this quality turned all the others on and that without it you could have a good leader but not a great one.  The quality they identified they called character.

“I want you to be someone I can look up to.  This outfit is so dysfunctional I need you to show me there is still hope.” – RCMP Member

It appears that good leaders have the ability to get others to buy into their vision; whereas great leaders lead people into a vision that is created out of character and integrity.  So it seems, according to these respondents, that it is character that makes the difference between a good leader and a great one.

“I could provide a shopping list of NCO’s who have done it all –  everything under the sun, and then been promoted.  Is there one of you up there with an ounce of integrity?” – RCMP Member


From → Leadership

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