What does a leader actually do?

Why understanding the specific demands of the top job are key to being more than just a glorified manager. This exclusive insight is taken from MT's Leadership Learning education programme.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 25 Jul 2022
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Defining the difference between a manager and a leader – if, indeed, there is one – may sound like a relatively pedantic undertaking. Yet it is vitally important if we are to understand the purpose of leading and undertake the personal and professional development required to master it.

On a pragmatic level, the distinction between the two is relatively straightforward. Dr Chris Dalton – associate professor of management learning at Henley Business School and course leader for Management Today’s Leadership Learning programme – says a manager is primarily concerned with organising, in the best way possible, things that already exist. A leader, meanwhile, prepares everyone and everything for what does not yet exist.

In Dalton’s view, leaders are defined by their work through three different perspectives. The first is authority – the permission required to be in charge and the skills needed to competently fulfil those roles and duties. When leaders fail, it is often because they fail to fully understand where authority comes from, how their organisation functions, or how to bring the two concepts together in a way that will lead to meaningful change. 

The second is creativity: the vision and talent to scan the world or come up with new ideas and fresh thinking. Great leaders prepare their businesses to spring into action when opportunity presents itself. They do this by fully understanding the context in which they operate, and caring deeply about building and maintaining a healthy working environment.

But the final, and perhaps trickiest, aspect of leadership is wisdom. This involves self-criticism and the ability to understand who you are, on the grounds that this will make you better able to care for others. Wise leaders are wise followers and are fair in their dealings, but wisdom is something people have to work at and is by no means guaranteed.

An alternative version of these distinctions is articulated by the celebrated leadership coach and author Peter Fuda. He has set out four questions every leader should be able to answer, two of which are relatively straightforward - “Where are we going?” and “How will we get there?”

Good leaders can go a step further by answering “How are we going to be on this journey?”, a query which helps define organisational and personal values. But only great leaders, says Fuda, are able to connect their everyday actions with a wider mission, by answering: “Why do we exist, above and beyond making money?”

For Fuda, this isn’t an academic exercise but an intrinsic part of encouraging people to follow you. “The why is the most important part of how we achieve anything. In a world where we are competing for time, attention and resources, if we don’t have a big why, we won’t get it done,” he says. Knowing why we are doing something, a concept that is deeper than it perhaps at first sounds, may be the first and most crucial step to becoming a great leader.

This article is an excerpt from course materials used in the Leading With Purpose module of the Management Today Leadership Learning programme.