Positional vs. True Leadership

               A common opinion (and one that I share) is there is a big difference between being a manager and being a leader.  I’ve heard it said: “People follow managers because they have to, people follow leaders because they want to.”  The difference between those words – have and want – can be massive.  When you are required to do a task, there is almost a reluctance right from the start to get it done.  We all have things we must do in life like paying taxes each year, and we can take different attitudes toward the MUSTs in life.  The positive spin placed on a HAVE TO or a MUST task comes from a distinct effort on each person’s part to look at life and its challenges this way.  Applying the word WANT to the same project, there is no such effort for positivity.  The implication of the word WANT is that it is a desired action – something we are looking forward to or volunteering to accomplish. The word WANT turns a drudge into a delight.  

             Unfortunately many managers feel they are leaders just by virtue of their positions.  This is the downfall of many businesses – positional leadership is different from true leadership.  Positional leadership gives people the authority as well as the responsibility of a team’s accomplishments.  A key point is that people with this type of leadership are appointed in some fashion by someone above them.  This is not to say the person didn’t earn his or her position through hard work or good results; the idea is that is not enough to demonstrate true leadership.  For example, when I was in the Navy, I had many people with positional authority over me just through their rank.  Unless the order given was unethical or immoral, I had to follow the directions given.  My Executive Officer was one such positional leader.  He gave directions will little thought to the consequences or impact to the person or team involved; he just wanted his order followed immediately.  As discussed in a previous post, giving and following orders will only accomplish the minimum level required for success.  If the person giving the order were a true leader, there is a high potential the results provided would be of a better caliber.  My last department head (direct boss) worked with us as a team to outline all the tasks required and the workload to balance out the effort.  Not only did he give us orders, he also gave us guidance and support in order to get the orders followed. The results were then often better, quicker, and the effort included more drive. 

                It is my own belief that a positional leader is like a dictator – leading through fear, intimidation or consequences.  A true leader has no need for such negative impetus because the people following are doing so willingly and with energy. 

-Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team



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  1. #1 by Ikonographi on April 17, 2012 - 10:11 am


    An excellent take on managerial styles. In my naval career, I too found it far more beneficial in the long run to promote consistency and sound decision making throughout. As a manager in the corporate world, I see that the trend is all to often towards the positional leadership model…

    In general, I think that the civil world is considerably less decentralized-I cannot, for instance imagine the CEO of my company delgating responsibility for the running of the company to a subordinate, as is matter of course in the military.

    To be fair, this is clearly because the paths to the corner office are not so well defined as they are in the Service. The addage, “choose your rate…shoose your fate” does not apply, and therefore strong team unity is challenging to maintain beyond a degree of political or financial incentive.

    Adding to the difficulty is the reality that as young officers, we were handed immense responsibility with considerably little training and virtually no relevant experience. We were taught to rely heavily on the knowledge of subject matter experts-our stalwart non-commissioned officers-to guide us through the rough waters. In civil life, these people exist, however there is no official “barrier” between the twenty year veteran employee with a hard won resume of certifications and successful projects, and the snazzy grad student with a good golf game.

    When a young manager comes into the company at the middle level, assuming a major role within five years, the more experienced employees justifyably see it as political favoritism. This is a quagmire we were somewhat fortunate enought to avoid in the military due to centuries old traditions concerning officer and enlisted personnel.

    As a reuslt of this cold ambivelance, the inpetus to “pull rank” when the chips are down is immense. As a middle manager, your will not be formatively evaluated across the esoterics of ethics, professionalism or bearing…

    …only results.

    With a swarm of people who feel they should have your job…and a horde of younger, less frayed people standing outside begging for your job, failure is lethal. Far from the “kindly Chief” who considers it a point of honor to develop you as a leader, everyone is looking for your weak spot. So is the “Boss” to be frank…one less paycheck to sign is always attractive if someone else is willing to step up and double down for less.

    On occaision, admittedly rare…is the Chief Executive who values not only single results, but overall effectiveness and loyalty to the company. When these individuals promote from within as possible, bring in highly qualified executives when needed, and practice consistent leadership ethics across both “Blue” and “White” collar employees, middle management is encouraged to follow suit.

    Great Posting!

    Joshua Gillespie
    Sales & Proposals Mgr.

    (S-3 1/203rd Garrison ETT Khowst, Afgahnistan 2007-2008)
    (Unit Operations Officer / OIC OPSUPU, NAVRESCEN Knoxville, TN 2006-2007)
    (Asst. Air Operations Officer, USS SHREVEPORT LPD-12 2001-2004)

  2. #2 by Thomas Guettler on April 23, 2012 - 3:43 pm

    Great post Lori. I agree with the idea behind positional and true leaders. Based on my own experience, individuals who are first time managers may default into a positional leadership style because in many cases they may not have had training or proper mentors helping them out. They may not have the necessary tools to provide them an alternate method, so as a result, they may adopt the “I’m the manger, do as I say” philosophy.

    I benefited from being at my current employer for multiple years before named as a manager. A promotion from within example. While I was essentially thrown into the fire, I did have previous relationships with members on our staff, which made it much easier. After five years now, I feel that I am not simply a manager, but am also their leader. I feel it is a life-long learning experience, to which individuals should never stop learning or practicing. Sometimes true leaders need to be managers to process tasks and projects through, but should never stop practicing.

    I think those that fall into the dictator style of leading usually fall short due to “personality limitations”, but have most likely been in situations that their style was defined and learned from someone of a similar nature. They may have been promoted under a stern and dictator-like manager, and fell in line with that mentality. It is not an excuse, but probably a likely culprit for this problem. There are plenty that have been promoted based on who they know. Most employees know what is going on, and anyone in that situation may have to rely on positional leadership because they do not have the respect from their staff to be their true leader. A shame really, as most leadership lessons are centered on common sense and doing what is right. At least that is how I see it. These people may have been appointed based on outside relationships, but if they put their staff’s needs to the highest priority, everything would probably improve and morale would rise. Instead, more often than not, things don’t change, and the staff suffers from morale issues, which can easily affect efficiency and quality of products or services.

    Anyway, great post Lori, and I do agree with you 100% on your take and look forward to reading more from your blog.

    Thomas Guettler

    • #3 by The Professional Development Team on April 23, 2012 - 3:47 pm

      Thomas, did you feel any conflict moving from a peer to a leader position with your co-workers? I have witnessed the pendulum both ways: 1. The leader maintains a buddy-buddy relationship which fosters resentment within a team 2. The leader cracks down hard in order to avoid the implication of fraternization but in turn alienates those he once worked with. I’m curious how you handled the situation if you don’t mind sharing.

      • #4 by Thomas Guettler on April 23, 2012 - 5:35 pm

        In my case, it was a little easier as I was considered a senior IT analyst. It was not necessarily a supervisory level position, but I would essentially work on high level projects. I was in it for about 2 years, and over that period I essentially began to ensure the work orders in our system would be assigned out, but had no official mandate on authority. When we did some re-organizing, they created a manger-level position and with the existing senior IT analyst, there was no envy or others who felt they were not considered. In regards to co-workers, it was fairly smooth.

        I do think some of my problems was being buddies with existing staff members. It was not intentional on my part, but I did not fully realize how it would affect others who were not on equal relationship status. We are a small staff of about 12 IT analysts, and once we transitioned and I created some distance between myself and the staff, I think it alleviated any thoughts of the “good old boy club” thoughts. While being more friendly with some, especially the ones that I worked with for a longer period of time, I did focus on fairness. However, perceptions are a large part of opinion, some probably did feel left out. It did create some uncomfortable feelings when I had to let a co-worker go. I had worked with him on a second shift for multiple years and consider him a friend. Although his problem was not work related but some actions left me no choice but to start HR actions. To his credit, we still keep in touch and I have helped out in any way I could, including being a professional reference.

        I hope this gives you some insight into your question. The hard part for me now is actually managing remote teams, which is a challenge due to time limitations and having multiple staff in multiple locations. There are always things to learn, which is one of the best parts of my job. The other would definitely be seeing some of the new guys learn and progress in the IT profession.

  3. #5 by David on December 15, 2014 - 4:02 pm

    Although positional leaders can deliver results, those who are true leaders will likely get better results. Moreover, the results of a true leader will likely be more encompassing. For example, an organization with a true leader will have an easier time retaining team members.

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