#30 Do Leaders Really Know?

by Steven Cerri on April 9, 2007

“Is it lonely at the top?”

I’ve been doing some reading about leadership by other authors lately. And I’ve been thinking about leadership in all it’s different forms. I’m struck by how difficult people seem to make this “leadership thing”. Leadership seems to be held in some kind of mystical state. There are certain ways in which a leader is supposed to behave. There are certain things a leader is supposed to do. There are little quips that are supposed to tell us the difference between leaderships and management. Such as:

“Leaders know what to do and managers know how to do it”.


“Managers perspire and leaders inspire”.

I find these little sayings useless. They tell me nothing about real leadership and leadership behaviors.

I’ve also been reading things like:

1. Leaders are supposed to know the answer(s).

2. Leaders are supposed to know what to do even when they don’t.

3. Leaders are supposed to have a great deal of confidence to lead their team.

4. Leaders are supposed to know where to lead the team even when they don’t.

Any of you who have been a leader or have been a second to a leader or have read truthful autobiographies of leaders, know that none of the four items above is true of a leader.

As far as I’m concerned, here’s the real truth about leadership:

1. Leaders don’t always have the answer(s) and sometimes they admit it and sometimes they don’t. The mark of a real leader is knowing when to do which in order to be effective.

2. Leaders don’t always know what to do. The mark of a real leader is knowing when to admit it and when not to in order to be effective.

3. Leaders don’t always have confidence. The mark of a real leader is how much confidence to show when in order to be effective.

4. Leaders don’t always know where they are headed. The mark of a real leader is knowing when to admit it and when not to in order to be effective.

In reading the above four statements you should be getting an interesting perspective by now about leadership. Leadership doesn’t mean being inhuman. Leadership doesn’t mean you have to give up your humanity. Leadership doesn’t mean to have to be “alone at the top”. Leadership by definition, is always about the RELATIONSHIP between the leader and those being lead. And the outcome of the leader is always TO BE EFFECTIVE in moving the team toward the goal. That is, the effective leader has the ability to BEHAVE in ways that allow his or her HUMANITY to be USEFUL in BEING EFFECTIVE.


1. The leader can have the answers when that’s effective and can ask questions when that’s effective.

2. The leader can give direction when that’s effective and can give people their own choices when that’s effective.

3. The leader can have confidence of iron when that’s effective and can be flexible when that’s effective.

4. The leader can know where to go when that’s effective and can ask for input when that’s effective.

Now you understand why leadership isn’t black and white. Why leadership seems at times to be one thing and at other times something else. Why leadership is sometimes contradictory, and why I call it the discipline with shades of gray.

This is why leadership is so difficult. It’s about judgment. It’s all about judgment. And it’s about understanding people, the people the leader is leading. Without an incredible level of understanding of people the leader doesn’t know when to be “this way” and when to be “that way”. This is the key to leadership. The ability to understand people and your own role in relationship to those people as leader is what allows you to know what to do when you need to do it in order to be effective.

The next question is “How do I get this “knowledge” about how to do what when?

The answer is you have five choices.

1. The first choice is to get the experience first hand… by trial and error in the work world. This takes too long and if you make a major mistake, your career can suffer significantly.

2. The second choice is to read about it. Not a good choice. Reading is not the same as doing.

3. The third choice is to combine choice one and choice two… read about it and then try it. Also not a great choice but better than one or two alone. But even with choice three you can make significant mistakes.

4. The fourth choice is to find a mentor in your company to guide you. Better than any of the others so far, but you will only get suggested leadership tools based on the company mentor. The breadth of input may be limited.

5. The fifth choice is to get a coach while you are in a position where you can apply what you are being coached on. This will allow you to have guidance from “outside your organization” where the view will be more impartial and, at the same time, you will be able to apply what you are learning from the coach in your work situation. The feedback loop can be very useful and flexible.

Obviously, I prefer the fifth choice. I know, it’s my job, my product, my offering. I am a coach. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it made all the difference. I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t provide the client with the fastest way through the unknowns of leadership.

I didn’t have the fifth choice in my career. I had the fourth choice. The process was slower than I would have liked and the mentors I had made up a very “mixed bag”. Some were good, most were not. And two were exceptional. I was lucky.

How many internal mentors and company managers in your company would you want to be trained by? For me, it wasn’t long before I realized that the people inside my companies were, in most cases, not people I really wanted to work for nor people I could learn a lot about management from. So as my career advanced, I began to develop my own management choices and I began to train and coach my own direct reports, my way, with incredible results. They went on to become vice presidents, directors, and CEOs as did I.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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