Leadership: not just Supervision

If someone were to ask, who are (y)our leaders, how would you respond? Most people would probably say the president, their supervisor or unit lead, the owner of the company they work for. But does a position of authority or superiority automatically imply leadership?

No. Positions like these imply only supervision, not leadership. There’s a difference. Supervision is signing timesheets, making sure everyone performs adequately, making sure projects get accomplished in designated timeframes, and so forth. It’s no small feat to be a good supervisor – but that in and of itself does not make one a leader.

Leadership is a set of tempermental and personality traits. Personally, I believe you either possess them or you don’t – they aren’t something to be acquired. And if you have them, what do you do with them? How do you mold them into being a good leader? Because, of course, there are bad leaders too.

What are some of these traits?

Ethics. A sense of right and wrong is key to effective leadership. Liars and hypocrites generally don’t cut the mustard – just ask Governor Blagojevich. People don’t respect people like that, especially hypocrites. True ethics lead one to walk the walk, and that means something to the followers.

Conviction. Now, I don’t mean the kind of conviction that causes one to completely write off other opinions because they’re different, as exhibited by certain politicians. I’m talking about knowing what you stand for, knowing what’s right (see ethics), and standing up for those things. A true leader wouldn’t change his (or her) story when the tides turned against him.

Compassion. Marie Antoinette didn’t curry any favor with her “let them eat cake” comment. A good leader understands the problems and struggles of his people, and doesn’t just pay lip service to them. He must project a sincere sense of caring and empathy, and set an example by being proactive in solving those problems. After all, we are all humans, and as they say, “there but for the grace of god go I…..”

Decision making. Yep, being a Decider is actually a good thing. No good leader shrinks from making a decision. However, a good leader makes informed decisions, weighs all sides of an issue before weighing in. To use Picard as example yet again: when faced with a difficult situation, Picard asks his staff for “Suggestions!” (asks being a euphemism for commands). Each person offers a suggested solution, Picard considers them all, then selects one. No one is upset if Picard didn’t choose his suggestion, because he knows that he was heard.

Respect. A good leader respects his people. This is where Machiavelli got it wrong. It is far better to rule with love and respect than fear or disdain. Cuz if you do the latter, your subjects will turn on you the first chance they get (ask Ms. Antoinette). Think about your parents: were you really ok with the “because I said so” answer, or did you prefer it when they gave you a real answer, one that respected your intelligence and human dignity?

I could probably go on and on with this list. Perhaps you’d like to post some of your own. The key is not to confuse the position with the person. A supervisor may or may not be a leader. Machiavelli wasn’t a leader, he was a strategist. Caesar, however, was both. What are you?

Not everyone possesses inherent leadership qualities, and that’s ok. We all have different talents. If you’re a supervisor but feel you want more leadership skills, there are some great training courses out there. If you recognize your latent leadership abilities but aren’t sure what to do with them, you can take one of said classes – or find a leader in your organization whom you admire and get some mentorship going. Or do what I did, and find some historical examples to follow.

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Mark Danielson

That’s great GC,

Very encouraging and positive. “Suggestions!” We’ve got one like that. Not just deciders, though, they are doers. What is the action? How much? who? and when? are questions often heard from these folks. What kind of leader am I?— Gotta go, my people are heading somewhere – I must lead them. Thanks for the post.


Integrity: that’s the one I couldn’t think of. I was staring at the computer thinking, “what’s that word that means you stick to your beliefs? Veracity? No…..” But it was integrity that I was thinking of. (Shows you what too much pinot noir does to the brain). A good leader absolutely MUST have integrity, maybe even above all else.

Charles Roberson

This post actually troubles me on a couple of points, though I think I understand and agree with the gist of what is being written. First of all, I question the opening premise – that being in a position of authority implies leadership. Absolutely it does, and it should – an implication being that the person in a position of authority SHOULD be a good leader. Clearly that isn’t the case all the time, but we certainly need to hold those in authority positions to the standard of good leadership. It is not okay, for example, for a person without leadership ability to be President, though there are several instances in history where this has happened, with disastrous results.
I also must question whether or not the traits listed in the piece cannot be acquired. Think of the implications of that statement. Is there a point at which people cannot learn to be ethical, or compassionate, or respectful? If so, that puts a whole new spin on the term “rehabilitation” for prisons, it puts an entire new spin on any sort of training, and it allows us to write off a significant portion of the society, which isn’t a very cheery notion during this holiday season, and certainly not consistent with the holiday blog that came after this one. 
There also must be some consideration for the whims of the people being led. Compassion might be a great motivator for many (myself included), but there are others who like a leader who “kicks butt and takes names” or “really lets the opposition have it.” We need to be cognizant of the really strong urge to extrapolate the things we value personally in people into global requirements for leaders.
I think, ultimately, that a good leader inspires people to do things they either would not or could not do. How the leader gets them there is not scripted. The trick is to take whatever traits you possess and use them to your best advantage. I’d love to hear more debate on whether a leader is born or made, though at the moment, I am leaning toward it being a little bit of both.
By the way, I also think the description attributed to supervision is actually a description of a manager. Supervision and leadership are in the same neighborhood, in my opinion, and good supervision is the difference maker in successful organizations public or private sector, in large part because a supervisor is a leader for said organizations on a smaller scale, and is charged with motivating staff. Try motivating anyone without leadership ability. Unless you’re packing an Uzi or have really incriminating photos, you probably won’t get it done without some semblance of leader-ness.

One last thing – great leaders certainly can be do-ers, and we like do-ers. They can also be enablers (the good kind), content to get out of the way of their people and let them do their thing, providing the “grease” when necessary.

I’d love to hear further thoughts on the topic.


Hi Charles…..I absolutely agree with your first paragraph, in that people in positions of authority SHOULD be good leaders. My point was that this is not always the case in practice. Should it be? Heck yeah!

I did not mean to imply that the traits I listed couldn’t be acquired. What I meant was that inherent leadership ability/nature is an inherent tempermental trait, so either one is born with it or not. Even so, could one learn some leadership ability? Sure — but I do question how much so. If one does not possess an inherent leadership quality, then how far can it be imposed upon a different temperment?

Of course, people can and should evolve over the course of their lifetimes. Perhaps during the course of this evolution one’s character does change enough that he/she could be said to have acquired innate leadership ability. But, I would argue that that ability was always there — it just wasn’t apparent or at the surface, or was superceded by other issues.

I like your comments on the importance of a good supervisor, private or public sector. I think poor supervision/leadership is tolerated more in the public sector, but with great consequence. I recall quite vividly a case where my supervisor was a very poor leader, and not really a very good supervisor either. Classic case of a bureaucrat in the bad sense of the word. The staff was so completely demoralized. The only thing that kept the program afloat was that we each possessed a strong sense of work ethic, and that we bonded in our oppression. Ultimately, however, all of us moved to greener pastures, and this pattern will continue as long as this person is allowed to be a horrid leader. In the end, the program (and by extension the public) will suffer, because this person will never be able to inspire the staff (and in fact, doesn’t care to).

At the end of the day, as always, we are on the same page (except maybe about Mr. Maher). I enjoy discussing the finer points of issues with you!