Thinking like a leader: Achieve it in three steps

Steve Jobs is remembered for successfully straddling the manager/leader divide

Giving fewer answers and keeping an ear to the ground will help you.

In the future, “one won’t ‘manage’ people… the task will be to lead people”, said management guru Peter Drucker, back in 1959. He was explaining one consequence of the rise of “knowledge workers” – the bankers, software engineers, and other “gold collar” employees who use their brains for a living, not their hands.

But if you want to move up the corporate ladder, to become a leader rather than just a manager, how can you do it? Here are a few tricks that could help.

First, you’ll need to change your mindset. Abraham Zaleznik, a professor at Harvard Business School, suggested in the 1990s that, while leaders and managers have similar goals, their means of reaching them are diametrically opposed: managers limit their employees’ choices, to promote efficiency, but leaders widen them, in order to reconcile conflicting views.

Becoming a leader means remembering that creating value through forming transactional relationships, leveraging resources, and effective problem-solving is only secondary, says leadership coach Alan Berson. Instead, focus should be on maintaining those trusted relationships, maximising the capabilities of others, and removing barriers that restrict a workforce.

And a shift from relying on incentives to trying to inspire means you must step outside any managerial sub-cultures you might have been part of in the past, says IMD professor Michael Watkins. “Leaders must be able to speak the language of all the functions [of the business] and translate for them when necessary.”

Further, whereas managers are usually experts in what they oversee, a leader must be able to tap into areas in which he or she isn’t the most knowledgeable, in order to fulfil the role of kingpin.

No-one would dispute the need for a leader to answer questions well. But, according to Berson, whereas finding the right answer is crucial for a manager, for a leader, finding the right questions is more important. “Ask questions from a place of curiosity… and be willing to change your mind,” he advises. Similarly, Watkins stresses that leaders should play the role of the interested outsider – impossible for a manager. In short, leaders must be able to ask the right questions to inform the work of others, identifying the right metrics to ensure excellence.

Chief executive and author Jack Zenger goes a step further. Writing for Forbes, he suggests leaders should knowingly limit how they answer questions, particularly in response to employees. An instant answer is a “missed opportunity for development,” he says. Many leaders think “providing answers is what they’re expected to do... but these questions become a useful vehicle for employees to make decisions.” While a manager might want to call all the shots, Zenger recommends leaders push back and say: “You’re closer to this than I am, what have you considered?”

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