Beyond Management: What Makes a Great Leader?

by Rose Addison, Manager, Documentation & Training | Feb 19, 2018

It is my personal belief that we rise by lifting others. I’ve had the good fortune to experience great mentors in my life, three to be exact. They took me under their wings and helped me soar. Their leadership didn’t always look the same, but throughout our relationships they challenged, cheered, and coached me. They had vision for themselves – but also for me. They saw my potential. They respected and encouraged me. In essence, their confidence in me helped give me confidence in myself.

What was it that made these people stand out as leaders in my life? What characteristics did they share? And how were they different from each other?

In this series, I’ll be talking about leadership – what it is and what it isn’t. I’ll explore what drives good leaders, why they lead the way we do, and how those in leadership positions can ultimately motivate others to do more! To understand at a deeper level, let’s first dive into the basics.

Leadership vs. Management

The terms “leader” and “manager” are often used interchangeably, but in my humble opinion, the two are not created equal. To me, the difference between a manager and a leader is this:

A manager tells employees what to do and how to do it

A leader inspires people to do much more than simply what they’re told

When people are led rather than managed, they place value on what they do and strive to achieve their goals. Achievements generate pride. Over time, this influences a person’s sense of self-worth, positively affects other areas of his or her life, and continues to generate positive opportunities down the road.

Goals, big or small, can become overwhelming. Chances are, if you have the insight to recognize it, you haven’t completed goals without the help of others. Occasionally, we all need to be pushed out of our comfort zones, reminded of the big picture, or cheered on. I’d be willing to put money on this: If you’ve had the pleasure of a great mentor, so did they. 

Theory X & Theory Y Management Philosophy

In 1960, economist Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise, which explores human motivation and management. Based on his research on human relations, McGregor found that our beliefs shape our behavior. Our behavior, in turn, shapes the behavior of others around us.

He hypothesized that human beings can be generally divided into two contrasting schools of thought – Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X folks have an inherent dislike of work and want to avoid it whenever possible. Theory Y folks experience work as naturally as they do play or rest.

He also believed that a manager’s leadership style is defined by these two very different approaches to human behavior. Simply put, Theory X managers are autocratic and prefer to control. Theory Y managers are humanistic and prefer to engage.

Control leads to resistance

Resistance leads to poor results

Poor results further reinforce Theory X thinking

Take a look at the following table for more insight on Theory X and Theory Y thinking. Can you recognize how these two adverse lines of thinking would affect the way a leader motivates? How our beliefs shape our behavior? How do you rank leaders of your past and present? How do you rank yourself?

Theory X Thinking

Theory Y Thinking

The average human…


Dislikes work and will avoid it whenever possible


Naturally enjoys physical and mental effort

Prefers to be directed


Enjoys responsibility

Commits to goals out of fear of punishment or other external controls

Commits to goals for rewards and achievement purposes


Has little ambition


Exercises self-direction and self-control when committed to goals


Seeks security above all else


Actively seeks greater responsibility

Cannot be trusted


Sees potential in him- or herself and others



Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To take it one step further, let’s refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist and author. In 1943, he wrote a paper entitled, A Theory of Human Motivation, in which he theorized the range of human needs using a pyramid. Maslow believed that all humans share the same principle needs – physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

The three bottom tiers – motivators like food, water, shelter, security, love – are basic. The top two tiers – drivers like esteem, respect, and self-actualization – are more enlightened.

Furthermore, he hypothesized that once lower level needs are met (food, safety, love), we innately want to pursue higher achievements (respect, self-fulfillment). He also said that until lower level needs are met, we cannot focus on higher level needs.

To me, it all boils down to this: Once basic needs are met, people will continue to strive to become their best self. When a person is their best self, the people around them and the organization they choose to be associated with will benefit.  

Managers focus on primary needs

Leaders focus on all needs

For a short video on these subjects and how they’re closely related, check out this video.

Readiness Level

For a manager to be effective, he or she should analyze an employee’s receptivity, also known as the “readiness level” in McGregor’s theory. A person’s readiness level is affected by his or her previous life experiences, education, expectations, biases, etc.

Successful leaders take an employee’s readiness level into account and recognize that it can change over time.

When followers are less ready, whether it’s because of a lack of ability or wiliness to be led, a good leader will be flexible and take a different approach.

For example, Theory X leaders might find it challenging to trust new employees, while Theory X employees most likely have a hard time putting faith in new leaders. As trust builds over time, both the employees’ and leader’s readiness level can change.


When it comes to leadership, the situation itself often dictates your next moves. The nature of the work, types of assignments, and complexity of tasks affect how a leader should move forward in a given situation. Besides these conditions, the team’s successes and/or failures should also influence the leader’s choice of style.

The situation at hand maybe be the most important factor a leader should consider

For example, common sense tells us management style is going to vary in a big way between a print room supervisor, an applications development manager, or the director of a call center… Let’s look at the evidence.

In a print room where the work is well-defined and always follow a certain pattern, a supervisor will need to provide specific instructions regarding the day’s tasks in order to meet time constraints. Now consider the call center: While a director may set daily quotas for employees, he or she may also be able to provide a bit more flexibility in how tasks get handled. Finally, the applications development leader can offer underlying structure and guidelines, but he or she may also want to help team members learn problem-solving skills by giving them more autonomy.

Regardless of the conditions, leaders must also consider the team’s success and failures. Referencing our examples above, it would make no sense for the print room supervisor to drive his people extra hard when they’re exceeding time management goals. It would, however, make sense to assert authority and concern if the team is missing deadlines.

Are you a leader in your organization? Do you aim to be? Does Theory X resonate with you or do you find Theory Y hits closer to home? How do your beliefs affect the way you behave? How ready are you to be led? How ready are you to lead? What situations drive your behaviors?

I manage a team but I want lead them. I want my team to succeed, not only for my company’s objectives, or my own, but for themselves. I’m certainly not a subject matter expert on leadership but I aspire to learn more. Mentorship inspires but also fulfills – let’s figure out how to pay it forward.

Stick with me through this series as we explore leadership together.