Achiever or Leader?


I recently had the chance to hear writer, executive educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith speak. One of the (many) things he said that stuck with me was this: “One of the hardest things for high performers is to transition from being a great achiever to being a great leader.” What’s the difference? To be a great achiever the focus is on “me”. To be a great leader, the focus is on “them.”

Certainly a number of great achievers aspire to occupy the seat at the top of the organizational chart, or at least the head of a division or department. If you see yourself, even vaguely, in that statement, it may serve you well to reflect on whether such a role is appealing because it would serve as validation or a crowning achievement to years of effort on your part, or if you feel drawn to the role because it would afford the opportunity to help your organization, and the people in it, succeed.

There is not a right or a wrong answer to that question. The world needs both leaders and achievers. And it does not diminish the impact of your accomplishments to focus on, and feel you should be recognized for, your talent and hard work. It may, however, mean that for high achievers, a transition into the role of a leader could be harder than you anticipate, because the two roles require a different set of skills.

What skills does it take to be a great leader? While far from an exhaustive list, some of the attributes leaders need include:

  • The ability to see the potential in others, and the patience to develop that potential.
  • The strength of will to position the organization for long-term impact rather than near-term gain.
  • The confidence to see the value in different approaches, and the curiosity to seek out opinions that may differ from your own.
  • The grit to take an unpopular stand for what you believe to be the greater good.
  • Trust in your people, and a recognition the only way achieve the organization’s mission is through the work of others.

What would you add to this list?

Jim Collins refers to people who are wired this way as Level 5 Leaders — people who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. Certainly, not every person in a position of leadership has these characteristics, but the best leaders do. Can great achievers become great leaders? Absolutely! However, one role is not necessarily a steppingstone to the other and success as an achiever is no guarantee of high performance as a leader.

Achievement is about your performance . . . leadership is about theirs.



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