Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So, was MLK a good leader or a good manager?

If 2020 taught us anything, it is that us leaders need to be ready for challenges because they are not going anywhere. True leaders emerge during difficult times. While we can’t control just how many challenges we face, we can make a decision – let ourselves face them with a brave face, or hide and just go through the motions. And, while it may not seem like it at first, something positive can come from these challenges.

The Challenge:

The first step is understanding the difference between a “manager” and a “leader.” These two terms are both used a lot in the business world and they are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Being a “manager” is being promoted to a position where you manage people and processes. Being a “leader” is influencing others. Which one do you think is harder to accomplish? I suppose it’s debatable and depends on the person. But, do you know what is even harder to accomplish? Managing a balance of both a “manager mindset” and a “leader mindset.” The best leaders have both mindsets and know when to apply each.

Mindset is the catalyst for growth. Without the right mindset, you can never truly change your actions and sustain growth. Also, to grow an organization, team or even yourself, you need both a leader and a manager mindset.   

We must embrace change and we must do it fast. The last several months have taught us many lessons. One is that leaders can’t get too comfortable because things can change in an instant. The goal is for all staff to be innovative and to take action in a new direction. We don’t want people to just go through the motions. The goal is to have a plan (manager mindset) but also be flexible and open to innovation (leader mindset) – constantly reacting to events and fast-changing reality. The more we can have this balance of both mindsets, the better. 

So, was MLK a good leader or a good manager? He was both! 

Psychological Principle:

The term in psychology for this type of leader is – Transformational leader – a creative style of leadership that focuses on a continued push towards growth and a rejection of complacency. Basically, what that means is that everyone has the potential for improvement. And that’s what a transformational leader exploits; they lift themselves and their teams to higher levels of achievement. It’s going beyond expectations, and reaching for what’s just beyond grasp. Transformational leaders both appreciate a process (manager mindset) and they encourage even better ideas (leader mindset).

Mindset Shift:
  • Balance of a manager mindset and a leader mindset – Even the best and more successful leaders have to have a manager mindset at times. Great leaders know when to use each
  • Leadership exists everywhere in organizations at ALL levels – People are promoted to the position of “manager” but they have to earn the title of “leader” based on what they do and who they inspire and influence. This title of “leader” can be earned at any level!
  • The more we expect change and challenges, the better prepared we will be – Change and challenges are not going anywhere – this is one thing 2020 taught us.
Performance Shift:
  • Connect your work to meaning – everydayDifficult changes and challenges can rock our foundation that we have built our careers upon. They can make us feel lost or they can inspire us to use the “change opportunity” as a way to be creative and innovative. This is up to us. Challenging times allow us to ask questions we never thought we would have to. When we are willing to ask and explore those questions – who am I, what really matters to me, what do I want my life to be about – we can begin to rebuild and construct a new foundation, often from the ground up, that is more authentic and based on who we really are and what’s important, rather than on the values others have placed on us.
  • Have fun! Your attitude is contagious – As a leader, your attitude sets the tone. If you still have fun at work even though it is a challenging time, your staff will follow suit. 
  • “Change of plans” vs. “change in plans” – “Change of plans” signals that the plans as a whole have been changed. The first plan is abandoned and a new plan substituted. “Change in plans” signals that the plans as a whole are still there, but that a part of the plans has been changed. Watch your wording and reiterate that yes, there are some challenges, yet the world is not crashing down.

Chances are, you tend to favor one of these mindsets over the other. So, if you really want to excel and – as MLK said – not just stand where it’s comfortable and convenient, push yourself to work on your weaker mindset. You know you’ll need it!

Co-authored by: Betsy Moore, Industrial/Organizational Psychology Consultant & Health Coach





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