“Leadership” and “management” are useful terms, but their meanings have become conflated, which diminishes their significance. Management titles are frequently used to define leaders, but does a title really identify a leader? Many respected organizations offer leadership training, but if training produces leaders, why do so many CEOs fail in their first few years on the job?

When we consider historic leaders, we might think of Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Winston Churchill, who led entire societies through periods of great turmoil and evolution. Gandhi guided the independence movement in India through nonviolent civil disobedience. Rosa Parks, “the first lady of civil rights,” sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the American south, commanding attention by refusing to relinquish her seat and move to the back of the bus. Of the three, only Churchill, the iconic statesman who led Great Britain through the challenges of World War II, had a lofty title as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Obviously, factors other than title set these individuals apart as leaders.

Management, by contrast, is fairly well understood in its role of operating the levers of power within an established organization. The skills required of a manager have been documented, formulated into training and delivered with generally good results. The problem arises when trying to elevate a manager to “leadership” status. This begs the question, how does leadership differ from management? Do individuals in the upper reaches of business inspire allegiance by demonstrating the qualities of leadership, or do they leverage the power and dominance of their positions?

Such questions demand a clear definition of leadership. A simple yet effective definition resides in the statement, “A leader inspires followers.” But leadership is more complex than simply showing others the way forward. Parroting what a recognized leader did in the past and expecting similar results is a well-trodden path to failure. Successful leaders do what works in the current situation, and what works differs across time, circumstances and geography. In contrast to management, leadership is completely situational.

At a minimum, a leader must:

  • Employ the right skills
  • Possess the right traits
  • Recognize the need for change
  • Confront opposition
  • Inspire followers
  • Encounter luck

Remove any one of these factors, and then ask if Gandhi, Parks or Churchill would have still been considered leaders. The answer is likely no!

Training can move an individual only so far along the journey to becoming a leader, because not all leaders need the same set of skills. They only need the skills that serve the demands of the specific situation, and they need to know when and how to use those skills effectively. Given that the challenges leaders face can vary significantly, it is unreasonable to think that it is possible to predict which skills a potential leader will need for some future situation.

Not only must leaders have the right mix of skills that matches the demands of the situation, but they often need to be determined and courageous enough to bring those skills to bear against opposition. These characteristics are better thought of as personality traits, which can be identified but are not easily delivered through training. Without the right traits, a potential leader may succumb to the challenges at hand.

Furthermore, a leader needs followers. Only when the landscape is littered with challenges do people see a need for change and seek to place their trust in a leader who they believe can navigate a way past the obstacles. Without followers, someone who by all other accounts would be a leader is just another face in the crowd.

Finally, luck cannot be understated when it comes to bringing the right combination of factors together in a serendipitous fashion. Being in the right place when a circumstance or need avails itself that is perfectly matched to the leader’s skills and traits is an important contributor to leadership and one that cannot be easily orchestrated. Would Churchill, who mustered England’s defense against the Nazis during WWII, have been such a luminary leader had peace prevailed in Europe in 1941? Leaders emerge when the need for change exists in a form that makes the current circumstances intolerable.

While management can be defined by a specific set of skills, leadership encompasses skills, traits, the need for change, opposition, followers and a good measure of luck. Under certain circumstances, a manager can be a leader. But it should be clear to everyone that the power and dominance a title bestows does not in itself make someone a leader. And training alone falls far short of creating a leader. Only the act of leading creates a leader, and the success of that endeavor is best judged in hindsight.