Leader vs. Ruler: Which One Are You?

When I was trying to search for "leaders vs. rulers" on Google, I found many references to governments, royalty, and the military, throughout history. But the strange thing is that none of the articles seemed to distinguish between leaders and rulers. As if leaders and rulers are the same kind of people.

They are not.

Last week I was reading the book Tribes, by Seth Godin. In his book Seth says that never in history has it been so easy for anyone to be a leader. These days, with the use of social media, each of us is able to attract our own followers. And on Twitter, this is exactly what we're doing (quite literally). Seth explains that a crowd becomes a tribe when it has a leader that the people are following out of their own free will. And the interesting thing is that people can follow different leaders for different causes.

In software projects it is the same. Some people can take the lead on an architectural level, while some have the lead on a functional level. Still others may be the first ones to turn to when people need advice about tools or processes. A complex system does not need a single leader. In fact, I believe a cross-functional team functions best when it has multiple leaders, each with his own area(s) of interest.

In social systems the rulers are of an entirely different breed. While leaders use the power of attraction to convince people what to do, rulers use the power of authority to tell people what to do. Ruling people's lives is the very purpose of the ruler's job. With ruling comes law-making, enforcement and sanctioning, also called the trias politica (legislature, executive, judiciary).

Unfortunately, rulers have gotten a bit of a bad name over the centuries. (Much of it deserved, by the way.) But ruling isn't all that bad. Laws, enforcement and sanctions are necessary evils, and in many social systems rulers can peacefully co-exist with leaders. For example: in any football (or soccer) match you will find leaders (one in each team) and rulers (the referees). They all play their parts in making the game work for everyone.


Are managers rulers?
There's no doubt in my mind that managers are rulers. They are (usually) the only ones with the authority to hire and fire people, and to place them in (or remove them from) teams or departments. They are able to tell people what software to use, what clothes to wear, and how much to pay for a place at the parking lot.

Are managers leaders?
This is a more interesting question. Lots of management book have been trying hard to turn managers into leaders. The last one I read was Good to Great, by Jim Collins. In his book Jim listed a 5-level hierarchy:

  • Level 5 Executive: Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.
  • Level 4 Effective Leader: Catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.
  • Level 3 Manager: Organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of pre-determined objectives.
  • Level 2 Contributing Team Member: Contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.
  • Level 1 Highly Capable Individual: Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.

The problem I have with Jim's hierarchy is that it suggests a linear progression to "higher" levels (where a leader is on a "higher" level than a manager). This doesn't fit with my observations of how social networks operate.

In a software project, or any other social network, there can be many leaders, each with his or her own goals and desires. Some are taking initiatives for better architectures, some are leading the way to better user interface design, and some are guiding their followers towards better customer service, better processes, better software tools, or better coffee.

To be a leader is not the next step for managers
It is the manager's job to give room to leaders

There are thousands of leaders on Twitter, and they all have their own huge numbers of followers. But who are the managers of Twitter? Only Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey are. It's their platform. It's their game. They are the referees, making the laws, enforcing them, and sanctioning, while thousands of leaders and tribes are running around trying to score.

Sure, it's ok when managers are trying to be leaders. Nothing wrong with that. Evan, Biz and Jack have a large number of followers themselves too. But they don't have the largest tribes.

Managers are on top of things, but they are not on top.

Rulers don't need to have the largest tribes themselves. Being a great ruler is hard enough already. If you think you need to be a great leader too, you're just making it hard for yourself. Referees contribute to great football/soccer games by being great rulers. They don't attempt to lead. It's not their job. They are in charge, but they are not the ones with the biggest egos.

In his presentation Step Back from Chaos Jonathan Whitty shows that managers are often not the hubs in a social network. It's the informal leaders in a network through which most of the communication flows. It's the managers' job to make sure that leadership is cultivated, and that the emerging leaders are following the rules.

So, you can be a leader, or you can be a ruler. And if you're exceptionally talented, perhaps you can be both.

Which one will you be?

(images by stella gonzales2003 and kelsey e.)

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