At various times in this blog I have discussed leadership as a verb. That is, one only knows it when one see some specific behavior and thinks “now that’s leadership”. I have also stressed that this observed behavior must be aimed at accomplishing more than simply directing a group of people to undertake a set of actions they all pretty much agree in advance needs undertaking. It’s when some adaptive work needs doing and there is little consensus on what to do or desire to do much of anything that a leader is required.

Giving orders and direction is what managers do. Helping people adapt to the need for change, accept and embrace the need for it, come to believe they are capable of doing it, and taking action is what leaders do. Managers exercise authority. Leaders challenge, urge, and persuade. Leaders know how hard the change process is and never pretend otherwise. Leaders express empathy for the difficult challenges they are asking others to undertake. Leaders deal in the truth, including the fact that sometimes leaders fail. In short, leaders articulate and show the way forward.

I am often asked for an example that distinguishes behaviorally between managing and leading. Here is my favorite example. I hope it is clarifying.

Consider a hypothetical cardiologist. She is experienced, highly regarded, and excels both in the surgical suite and as a personal physician to her cardiac patients. In surgery, she is the absolute boss. The procedures she undertakes and directs are precisely the challenges that have a tried and true approach and solution. The anesthesiologists, nurses, and attending staff are well trained and practiced in their roles and responsibilities. There is a choreographed rhythm to their teamwork and efforts. Our surgeon’s job is to synchronize the necessary activities and quickly resolve any conflict or disagreement among her colleagues. In other words, she operates and manages.

Fast-forward two months post-surgery and our cardiologist convenes a collective meeting with five of her most recent surgical patients. She begins by congratulating them on a successful recovery and informs them she wishes to meet with them individually at regular intervals over the next year to chart their progress. Then she lowers the boom. “All of you are overweight”, she says. “Three of you are down right obese. Four of you still smoke. All of you have abysmal diets. All of you imbibe too much alcohol. None of you has followed any sort of exercise routine since high school. These things must change or you may not survive your next cardiac crisis. I intend to monitor your progress toward a more healthy active life style at each of our one-on-one monthly meetings”.

At this point, our cardiologist has decided to lead and she must do so absent any command authority. No longer in the operating suite where she is the boss, she will need to rely upon her persuasive powers, compassionate understanding of the difficult task she has asked her patients to undertake, and her commitment to seeing her leadership role through to its end.

One can easily imagine the shocked look on our patient’s faces as they contemplate the adaptive work their cardiologist has just asked them to undertake. One can also imagine the inner-doubt some of them feel concerning whether they are up to such a task. Some are probably thinking a second opinion may be in order. Our cardiologist has a lot of leading to do if her surgical survivors are to succeed. And yes, she is well aware that in some cases she may fail.

Categories: Leadership, Managing & Leading


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