Leaders Wanted. Good Managers Need Not Apply

Published: 29 July 2012

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by Annelize Van Rensburg

It may seem unfair, but today’s hard-driving, highly successful managers confront a chilling reality. What got them moving up the corporate ladder is less and less likely to get them to the top. Organisations planning to succeed for the next 30 years are looking for leaders, not managers; not even great ones.

Over the last decade the single biggest trend in the South African private sector is the emphasis on leadership quality. Companies looking to fill the top job regard managerial competence as a given. It’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Managers who sweat assets, cut costs and get results are indispensable. But if that’s all your CV says about you, then you don’t fit the bill for the highest echelons in business. Putting ticks in those boxes means you know your ABCs when the X Factor is the principal requirement.

These conclusions are supported by years of experience at sourcing candidates who meet the job specifications for senior positions at some of South Africa’s largest companies. International literature suggests the same applies worldwide.

We see growing awareness of the distinction between leadership and management.

Management is transactional; leadership transformational. Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing. Managers work within the status quo; leaders often don’t. Managers think short term; leaders take a long view. Managers chop down the trees to penetrate the jungle; leaders go round the jungle. Managers know the rules; leaders the exceptions. The list is endless.

Many erudite papers now pontificate about leadership. But getting philosophical and quoting Lao-tsu probably won’t help perspiring managers become inspiring leaders.

What might help is greater awareness of certain characteristics that identify top candidates for the very top jobs. Here are six:

  • People power: Leaders get the best out of people. They are often charismatic. Don’t confuse this with being flamboyant, though on occasion they might go together.

They give direction, but team members are happy to go further than directed. Tomorrow’s leader says ‘they work with me’, not ‘they work for me’.

For a task-driven manager the job is more important than people. The executive with leadership potential believes people are more important than the task (yet still gets the job done). Motivational power comes through. The leader will coach and encourage rather than coerce.

  • Vision: The would-be leader knows last quarter’s figures, but is more focused on the future. He or she talks about the bigger picture and is not afraid to invest to achieve long-term goals.

These strategists avoid tunnel vision by focusing on broad objectives. They know the numbers, but never get bogged down in detail.

  • Confidence: One result of future focus and strategic thinking is optimism. This is apparent even in tough times – a quality main board directors appreciate. Tomorrow’s leader has quiet confidence. This never morphs into arrogance. Many strong, powerful leaders are known for their humility.

Inner confidence enables these individuals to look at business risk in a positive way. They see opportunities and if the risk-and-return proposition justifies the step, they are not afraid to make some big calls.

Confidence is also apparent in their approach to technology. Today’s leaders are techno-savvy. They may use a range of handheld devices. They are not PA-dependent when they have to Google or Skype or go on to Facebook and Twitter to check consumer feedback. Technology is an opportunity, not a threat and certainly no mystery.

  • Diversity leverage: Individuals who identify themselves as good leaders are comfortable working in groups of dissimilar people. This extends beyond race and multi-culturalism. They appreciate the contribution of various personality types. They tolerate (even encourage) some mavericks; perhaps because they have maverick qualities of their own.
  •  Lateral movement: Their CVs reveal some side-steps or time out for reflection. They may take a gap year to study philosophy, travel the world or climb Mount Everest.

Lateral movements like this often confirm the individual is a lateral thinker with inner self-belief. You don’t walk away in mid-career if you are worried about your capacity to get back on top.

The individual gathers wider experience and develops in new ways. The rat who wins the rat race remains a rat. The well-rounded individual who evolves, learns and adapts is trying to be a winner in the human race.

  • Balance: The new generation of leaders have greater balance in their lives than some of their predecessors. They are not workaholics. Their conversation extends beyond work. 

They attend their kids’ school sports day. They walk down to the shopfloor or chat to the guys in the warehouse. They attend the little office party for Lebo, the accounts lady who thought no one in management was interested.

Leaders have various styles and strengths, so these six qualities are accompanied by many more. But this ‘six pack’ is common to many of those who have broken through to the very top this last 10 years.

They are six of the best, most important leadership characteristics. Develop them and a good manager just might make a great leader.

* Annelize van Rensburg is a co-founder and director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.