Leadership: Big "L"s and Little "l"s

Jun 25 2007 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

There has been a lot of talk about leadership lately, much of it in the pages of this website. The questions usually center around the issue; what are leaders? Are they made or are they born? What is leadership and why don't we see more of it? Does the position make you a leader? And what do we look for in a Leader?

I've read flame wars between people I respect over whether someone is a leader because their name tag says they are . Books duel over what a leader is and does, yet we have leaders who don't look a darn bit like the examples they use. What gives?

Recently, a conversation with Chetan Dhruve, author of a new book, Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator as well as this piece on why fear rules the workplacepulled me up short.

He said something that I'm not entirely sure I agree with. In fact semantically, I disagree with it completely(I have been told I'm a hopeless semantic).

He said the most bosses are not leaders because they are not elected or chosen. So by definition, they're dictators. Some may be more benign than others, but they're dictators none the less.

So does a leader need to be chosen, or does the job description entitle you to call yourself a leader? After all, North Korea's Kim Jung Il is "The Beloved Leader" and I don't recall his election race making any of the papers. Anyway, if you have to call yourself "beloved" and put it on your business cards, you're probably not. Just a hint for those of you who get to choose your own job titles.

On both The Working Week and The Cranky Middle Manager podcasts, I have probably spoken to more gurus, pundits, leaders and wannabes than almost anyone alive (and managed to retain something of my sanity), so I've also had more time to ponder this question than most of you.

So allow me to cut through the fog.

How do you differentiate between those who are leaders by title and those who are leaders because they actually behave like leaders? Don't make me name names to prove they're not the same thing. Just open a newspaper.

Then it hit me. They are homonyms but not synonyms. There are "Big L" leaders and "small l" leaders. The problem is that the ones we most want are the small l types and they don't get quite the press of others.

Actually, it's really quite simple.

First there are Leaders (Big L). These are the people who are in positions of authority –leaders in a company. They are "Big L" leaders. They're expected to lead because that's what their job title says they do. After all, if you're paid more than me and have a more impressive title, I'd like to assume that you're leading the parade.

These guy and gals are what our boss refers to as "the company Leadership", because no-one uses the politically incorrect term boss or manager and more – it wouldn't be collegial. Still, if it walks like a duck , talks like a duck and gets paid like a duck, the chances are pretty good that it's a duck. Or it might be a former manager of mine, but it would be cruel to name her. . .

You and I frequently have no input on who these folks are - thus Mr. Dhruve's point about dictatorships - and in any case, they didn't ask us. Often they were in position way before we arrived or at least got their job without anyone asking our opinion. Or we got outvoted. Or the Supreme Court said so. Whatever, they are our Leaders.

Then there are leaders (small L). These people just lead, regardless of their job titles or positions. They are proactive, they lead by example and step up when things need to be done or the tough decisions made. While they are not "Leadership" (the position), they simply demonstrate leadership ( the trait).

So, to put it in a nutshell:

  • Leaders don't necessarily lead
  • leaders aren't necessarily Leaders
  • Leadership sometimes shows leadership but sometimes doesn't and there isn't a lot you can say or do
  • leadership doesn't only reside in the Leadership

What's so confusing about that?

As always, I'm happy to be of service.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments


Great piece. We've probably all seen managers who couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag, and 'L'eaders who couldn't 'l'ead a group of people down an empty sidewalk.

This is why I like how some companies are creating 'technical' 'L'eadership positions, such as 'Technical Vice President of _ _ _ _ _'. These are folks who hold a position of seniority and authority in their subject matter, but don't have any direct reports. In many such cases, these people don't want to supervise others --- which is fine, because if they don't want to do it, they're probably not going to put a lot of heart into it.

Anyway, your perspective here is certainly one to be included the next time folks start going back and forth about 'what is a leader?' Really good stuff!

- Dan

Dan Bobinski Boise, Idaho

I enjoyed the Big L, Little l definitions and quoted your article in a recently www.leadquietly.com post. I totally agree that you don't need a big L to lead and this concept is part of my evolving Lead Quietly manifesto.

Thanks for adding a chuckle to reading.

Don Frederiksen

Hello Wayne,

In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln said it best: No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent.

Chetan Dhruve

Now that's a simple, common sense, and observably verifiable take on the whole thing, Wayne.

And timely.

Yesterday I was being 'interviewed' by a newly minted General Counsel of a global bank. He wanted a coach to help him throught the transition. I asked what led to his promotion and what kind of 'leadership development' his company had provided a long the way.

a. His promotion, as far as he could tell, was the result of his observed ability to simply bring out the best of the people around him...in meetings, one-on-one discussions, and when asked to make a speech or presentation. People had simply responded to him and has informal (l)eadership over the years. (He is an unbelievably young gy for such a role. Probably 40).

b. He had received no--zero--formal leadership development or training during his career.

When I asked him if he had a particular philosophy or apporach to managing, his response was:'Find out what people need to get the job done and help them.' He said that, through his experience as a 'worker,' he had watched his bosses--and others--over the years, and concluded that there is no formula or shopping list of characteristics that defined a good leader all the time. (He had intutively stumbled onto the situational nature of getting things done).

The result: His small 'l' got him a big 'L'. And now he's humble enough to want to serve well.

Steve Roesler Medford, New Jersey USA

We can debate definitions of ‘leader’ as much as we want but we're debating the wrong word. There’s no doubt about ‘dictator’: someone with power over you, that you don’t have power over. Sounds like a boss to me.