The Gap Between Leadership Seminars & Being a Leader

Have you noticed the proliferation of leadership training programs and seminars around the country? The Internet is full of ads with claims that this or that seminar can fix an organization’s leadership issues with a weekend retreat or online program. I am not faulting the businesses for seeking to correct a critical deficiency that is so important for their prosperity and survival. But, while seminars can teach us about leadership styles by providing examples to follow and traits we should develop, they cannot turn a manager into a leader overnight.


A colleague once cautioned me about emphasizing this point too much, saying that many project managers are sensitive about drawing a hard line between the two terms. Well thank you for the heads up, but here are the problems I see with that posture: First, if no one ever tells us that we are wrong, how can we ever hope to learn and improve? Second, as an avid reader of Harvard BR, Stanford GSB, MIT Sloan, and a Fellow of Heartbreak Ridge University (25 year Navy Veteran), I am personally compelled to set the record straight!


“Leader” and “manager” are not synonyms. Period. TwitterLogo_#55acee  And although they are often used interchangeably, they actually have very different meanings, purposes, skill sets, and traits.


Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that managers and leaders were actually the same. How, then, would you explain that so many organizations struggle to develop great leaders? The proliferation of business schools has definitely made it possible for business minded people to obtain instruction and graduate degrees in a variety of management disciplines; and yet we are still challenged to find great leaders to emulate in every organization.


The reality is that “leader” and “manager” are very different terms. In truth, you can be a great manager and yet fail as a leader. One reason for this is that we can manage resources, but we must lead (guide) people. Professor John Kotter, (Ret., Harvard) would explain it this way: “leadership is about navigating change, while management is about control and standardization.”


This is a very important distinction for everyone to understand, because it succinctly explains what is wrong with so many organizations and their leadership programs. So many organizations struggle today because they expect managers to control change. They don’t want or don’t realize they need to invest in grooming leaders to guide them through change to a new reality.


Case in point: last week I received an email from a colleague (sent to multiple people.) In it he expressed his delight with an 8-hour leadership seminar he had attended and just completed. But as I continued to read, his praises for the course and instructor changed into sharp criticism of another colleague of ours, who was neither present nor copied in the email. Needless to say, I was very disappointed because he holds a leadership position in a professional organization.


I am certainly not opposed to giving feedback; it is an integral part of leadership. But leaders must praise in public and reprimand in private. When you conduct yourself like my friend did, you immediately lose credibility as a leader. The most valuable asset a leader can obtain is the trust of those around him/her. Never correct people in public. You lose their trust by humiliating them, you disrupt team dynamics, and you will end up with the reputation of being a bully.


How can you be an effective leader if your own people do not trust you? How can you expect to inspire a team that wishes you were someone or somewhere else? Dr. E. Deming stated that 85% of problems in organizations originate with management. This simple example shows how a small thing like a comment on an email can have unintended consequences that harm your professional reputation and your organization.


My colleague is a skilled manager. And I have no doubt he paid close attention and gained valuable information from attending that all-day leadership seminar. But here’s the bottom line – the critical key – the crux of the issue: he has not been mentored and groomed to lead people. A seminar – while helpful – is just not enough.


Leading people is a privilege and a heavy responsibility. It also requires a good bit of “getting over yourself.” If you truly want to be a good leader, find a great leader to mentor you. Invest the time and effort required to learn and grow. It will be worth it, I promise.