Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Leadership and selling are both forms of influence. They differ primarily in the fact that selling is self-interested. It’s a way of making a living. The salesperson is interested in making money by selling products or services. Leadership also influences people to do things they might not do otherwise, but is not self-interested. For example, a green leader like Al Gore promotes more environmentally friendly living by pointing to the benefits for the environment. He is not selling a product to make a living.

But all forms of influence, including leading and selling, also share another characteristic. They come to an end once the deal is closed. This is easiest to see with selling. If you buy a used car, the salesperson’s efforts to make the sale, to influence you to buy, are over the moment you sign on the dotted line. Out of courtesy, the salesperson might continue to be friendly until you leave the showroom, but he could just as easily start answering his phone and looking around for other customers to serve even while you are signing your life away. In other words, selling comes to an end once the buyer has bought the product. In construction or other consulting work, the person selling the contract helps the client implement the service, i.e. by building the bridge that the client has agreed to pay for. Although the contractor might make an effort to maintain a good relationship with the client for the sake of future business, the sale of the present contract was over the minute the client signed the deal.

This fact about selling can help us see leadership in a new way.  Conventional theories of leadership associate leadership with influence but it is also associated with being the person in charge of the group. This person not only sells the need to do something different, he or she also coordinates and facilitates the achievement of the objective. Execution of the goal that the leader has advocated is not just an add-on, but part of the very meaning of leadership. On this view, leaders not only influence people to strive towards achieving a target, they also help them get there.

However, if we stick more closely to what it means to influence people, selling a used car just being one form of influence, then we have to say that, if leadership really is a form of influence too, then it also must come to an end once the intended followers have bought the leader’s proposal. Take another example of influence. If you are trying to persuade your children to eat their broccoli, as soon as they start eating it, you can stop persuading them and finish eating your own meal. You don’t need to keep persuading them. This is a fundamental truth about influence. Yes, if you want people to keep doing something over an extended period of time, something they are not keen on doing, you might need to keep influencing them until the task is finished. But if you want people to undertake a short-term, brief act like buying a car or eating vegetables, the influence process comes to an end once the target party has taken action.

The bottom line

If we agree that leadership, like other forms of influence, comes to an end once the target audience agrees to act, then we have a great rationale and method for separating leadership from management. We simply say that leadership sells the need to act while management takes care of execution. The implication of this move is that leadership has nothing to do with managing people or getting things done. This is management’s job. Why should we want to limit leadership to merely selling the tickets for the journey? Because this is the only way to develop a general theory of leadership that covers all cases of leadership. Consider the following examples of leadership that do not involve the individual who shows leadership having anything to do with execution:

·    Martin Luther King, Jr. had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when that body ruled segregation on buses to be unconstitutional as a result of King’s protest marches and speeches.
·    A front-line knowledge worker succeeds in persuading top management to adopt a new product thereby showing bottom-up leadership.
·    Jack Welch’s emphasis on the importance of being number one or two in a market influenced companies around the globe to do likewise.
·    Apple Computer’s innovative graphical user interface influenced Microsoft to develop a similar interface called Windows.

Clearly, Martin Luther King did not manage any part of the U.S. Supreme Court so he had nothing to do with implementing what he was advocating. The same is true of the other examples which clearly demonstrate how it is possible to show leadership without being involved in implementation. These instances of leadership, like car sales, come to an end once followers follow suit. In the case of Jack Welch, he wasn’t trying to show leadership to the world, just to GE, but leadership happened because other companies followed his lead. Similarly, Apple didn’t even want a competitor following their lead, but Microsoft is a good follower so leadership was shown to them in this instance.

What can we say, in general, about such leadership. The only thing these disparate instances of leadership have in common is that they show the way, they point to a better or new way of doing something. It is a form of influence that, like all forms of influence, has nothing to do with managing anyone or getting things done through people.

So, what? Well, the reason this shift in perspective is important is that we are now in a knowledge driven age where companies are fighting a war of ideas, where innovation is the key to success. This means that leadership needs to shift from the notion of getting things done through people to what we might instead call thought leadership, the promotion of a better idea. Growing complexity requires increasing specialization. We need to divide the executive role into separate subfunctions. This means upgrading management so it is seen as a more positive, empowering, inspiring and nurturing function, not just a controlling one. Also, we need to see employees who promote new products as showing leadership even if they have no inclination or ability to take charge of anyone in a managerial sense. This can be a powerful way of fostering better employee engagement, motivation and retention.