Being Leader-ish: When You’re Not Quite a Leader

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Leadership Development



This is the word we use when something is stuck between being and not being. Between is and is not.

For example, we might say, “that shirt is red-ish.” Or, “I’m feeling sick-ish.” And sometimes, “the weather is a bit warm-ish.”

Describing things as ish is handy, because it helps us avoid committing when we’re not quite ready. And when it is used in the course of regular conversation, we tend to accept this half-way point as okay, and we carry on. We typically do not challenge convenient ish-isms.

But when is being ish not okay? What about in leadership? Is being leader-ish okay, not okay, or maybe okay-ish?

Being leader-ish means you’re not committing all the way to being a leader…at least not fully. Leader-ish may characterize a person who holds a management title, but stops short of exhibiting character-based leadership traits. This person may have employees who take their direction and follow their lead because an organizational chart suggests they do, but not necessarily by choice.  A leader-ish person may have position power, but a leader wins hearts and minds.

Five common signs you might be leader-ish:

  1. You’ve ever said, “I need to focus on doing my job; somebody else needs to deal with these people issues.”
  2. When raising a tough issue with an employee, you use passive and ambiguous language in your efforts to avoid hurting their feelings.
  3. You believe employees should know when they’ve made a mistake, and that you shouldn’t have to bring it to their attention.
  4. Your policy is to recognize your employees for herculean efforts only, because anything less is “just doing their jobs.”
  5. You choose not to ask tough questions to avoid making your employees feel uncomfortable.

These are leader-ish behaviors because they fall short of doing some of what a leader does best:  Guiding, mentoring, developing, and rewarding employees.

Five more signs you might be leader-ish:

  1. You’ve crafted a vision that is crystal clear in your mind, but haven’t explained it to anyone; you expect others to understand it through your actions.
  2. You feel you need to shield your team from what you describe as “disruptive corporate change,” and work hard to maintain the status quo.
  3. You follow all policies literally because you believe that’s better than making a judgment-call you’ll have to answer for later.
  4. You treat all employees equally, because you find that’s easier than dealing with them on an individual basis.
  5. Things always get done in your department because you do it yourself.

These behaviors are representative of the difference between having a management position and being a true leader. A manager focuses on the day-to-day operations; he turns the crank. A leader sets the vision and inspires people to get things done; he makes change happen.

These ten behaviors can also be described as the convenient, comfortable place we find ourselves in when we’re not quite a leader.  Being leader-ish is to be comfortable. Being a leader is to be uncomfortable.

Being leader-ish has consequences:

  • Employees don’t know where they stand or how to improve
  • The leader doesn’t grow or develop, and ends up stagnant
  • Future leaders learn leader-ish habits
  • Innovation is halted
  • Good talent leaves; okay talent stays

The list goes on.

Every leader, at one time or another, has probably done something leader-ish. Because leadership is not always easy, and sometimes we instinctively seek convenience.

But true character-based leadership emerges through discomfort. Ours, and others. It requires focusing our attention on how we can make others shine. Making mindful judgment calls. Getting things done through others, and winning their hearts and minds in the process. Handling people as unique individuals. Looking beyond our positions to the behaviors and choices that are best for our employees, for the team, for the organization, and its customer.

Are you a leader, or leader-ish?

Photo: Knowyourgut.com

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About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at www.alanderekutley.com and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

Monica Diaz  |  31 Jul 2013  |  Reply

… nice post, Alan.

Plus, I would say, leader-ish people don’t make good managers, either!

Alan Derek Utley  |  01 Aug 2013  |  Reply

Monica, I think I agree. Would that make them “manager-ish?” No, let’s stick with leader-ish; it has a nice ring to it. Either way, #ishhappens.

Thanks for your comment!

James Strock  |  31 Jul 2013  |  Reply

Interesting framing of the issue… thanks for sharing. One way to comprehend the leadership difference is to focus intently and effectively on those whom you are serving. That can clear away confusion about form over substance, about being “leaderish,” quite quickly…..

Alan Derek Utley  |  01 Aug 2013  |  Reply

James, thank you for this great insight. What a great reminder that leadership is all about the people to and for whom you are responsible. A great antidote to leader-ish-ness.


Natalie Robinson Bruner  |  02 Aug 2013  |  Reply

You can also be leader-ish by exhibiting leadership qualities without having the positional power. For example, you can inspire people to follow a vision without the authority to allocate resources and align efforts toward that vision.

Alan Derek Utley  |  13 Aug 2013  |  Reply

Natalie, I thank you for bringing this positive perspective to the idea of being leader-ish. Being leader-ish can perhaps also be exhibiting character-based leadership traits on your way to a formal leadership role. Thank you!
– Alan

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