In the world of Information Technology, there is a vast difference between someone who is a manager and someone who is a leader. A manager is a person responsible for planning and directing the work of a group of individuals, monitoring their work, and taking corrective action when necessary. A leader, on the other hand, embodies the inspiration and motivation of the team. He or she is the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and skills that makes others want to follow his or her direction.
Often times, the leaders are not the managers. They report to the manager just like everyone else on the team, yet the team often finds itself looking to this individual to develop a vision, come up with the plan, and to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The team takes direction from the manager, but takes guidance from the leader. Give it a few moments of consideration, and odds are you will think of one or two instances where you have experienced this phenomenon in your career.
I see this happen often enough that I’ve given it a name, “leadership from the bottom up.” Most often it happens as a result of the team having an ineffective or overbearing manager. Under this manager, the team is subjected to poor decision making and a lack of solid direction. The manager’s style of personnel management has the team on edge, and in the worst case, fearing for their careers if the manager tries to manage by intimidation. You often find that true leaders are forged from these situations, when positive reinforcement, a guiding hand, and a clear vision are most needed by the team.
Positional Leadership vs. Influential Leadership
Positional leadership is a leadership position in which the direction of the leader is followed based simply on the authority the leader holds as a result of their position or title. The problem with a positional leadership figure is that, quite often, holding the position does not mean the individual is respected or supported by their subordinates. Leaders who rely on their title, position, or power to influence others will offer little leadership to their team, and this lack of leadership is the foundation for failure on many levels.
It is quite easy to spot the signs of a positional leader. The failure to connect with the team, use of their position to justify their own decisions, or to dismiss the decisions and ideas of others, and having little concern for the team and its members, are all common mistakes made by a positional leader. In the majority of cases, the manager has no idea that they are an ineffective leader. Other times, a positional leader actually considers himself or herself to be an influential leader, making the situation worse as their ego and pride swell with the false sense of worth they stow upon themselves and expect others to see in them.
Not all positional leadership roles are bad, however. Law enforcement officers, as well as classroom teachers, need to assert the authority of their position to maintain control and gain the respect of those they serve. We understand and accept this as an essential part of these difficult jobs, where we ask someone to assume the role of a positional leader to ensure the success and stability of society. In the IT workplace, however, positional leadership is no longer needed as it once was. It is now almost always a sign of an inexperienced or overly assertive manager. Business management has grown and matured, and today the influential leadership style is more prevalent in the ranks of successful management personalities.
Influential leadership, unlike positional leadership, can occur no matter who the person is or what their title may be. Influential leaders have no direct reports, hold no authority, and are not considered “management” by others in the organization. In fact, influential leaders may not see themselves as a “leader” at all, and may not even realize the impact of their influence on others.
The influential leader is a different style of leader altogether, one that uses influence and discussion with others rather than orders or directives. The influential leader is someone that a team or an individual can openly look to for guidance, advice, or input, even though this person may not be their supervisor, manager, or team lead. The power of the influential leader comes not from a title or position, but from their ability to develop relationships that encourage open dialogue, help to shape ideas into solutions, and gather support from their peers and the team as a whole.
Become What You Already Are
No matter what position we hold within an organization, each and every one of us is, at some level, an influential leader. We have the ability to influence decisions, build teamwork, and support coworkers. Rarely do you find someone willing to take on the role of an influential leader within a team, becoming someone the team can look to for guidance and opinion, either on a business or personal level. Often this role is thrust upon an individual by the shear inadequacy of their supervisor. Regardless of how we find ourselves in the role, we each hold the power to be an effective influential leader.
In the field of information technology, leadership is often lacking. Internal politics in an IT organization are often found to be far in excess of comparable organizations, and in many cases paralyze the effectiveness of the individual contributors on the team. When overly assertive positional managers are allowed to dominate the IT organization, it is the influential leaders that rise from the ranks to help to keep the ship afloat, often to the detriment of their own careers. It is this rise from the bottom of the IT ranks, motivated by concern for others, the success of the organization, or the desire to do the right thing, that draws the attention and support of peers.
Knowing how and when to use your influence is key to being an effective influential leader. Your role is not to usurp the authority of the manager, but to support your peers and team. Maintaining effectiveness as a team is paramount in situations where the team is lead by an ineffective manager, which, in essence, means the team is not being lead at all. This is where the influential leader can shine in an IT organization, and is often the difference between the success or failure of the team.