In an ideal world, the titles "manager" and "leader" would go hand in hand, but that's not always the case. The Situational Leadership theory defines leadership as "a process by which a leader influences a constituent to produce a desired result." Merriam-Webster describes a manager as "a person who directs a team." Steve Farber, one of my favorite authors, believes leadership is the innate ability to cultivate a workplace that people enjoy.

It's no surprise that productivity and employee morale rely heavily on a manager's leadership style. One wrong move (or even the perception of being wrong), may cause employees to lose trust in their managers' abilities to guide their careers. The question is, what's the difference between a competent manager and a truly great leader? It's the ability to inspire employees during difficult times.

We recently received a call from a client who was concerned about a newly promoted IT staffer. "John" was a star -- technically proficient, reliable and competent, with an incredibly strong work ethic. When the previous IT manager left the company, it seemed obvious that John would be a natural in the role. Unfortunately, three months into the job, the team was not performing well and John couldn't seem to grasp all the varied elements of successful leadership. The company didn't want to lose John -- but it also knew that something had to change. John had never managed employees prior to his promotion, and the company's lack of training directly contributed to this dilemma.

Our client is not the only business facing this challenge -- many companies don't invest in proper management training for newly promoted managers. In times of economic turmoil, training programs are often the first to be eliminated in an effort to cut costs. While this may seem like an easy fix, it's actually the wrong choice and one that reveals a lack of big-picture thinking. In fact, a study conducted by Spherion Atlantic Enterprises LLC revealed that 61 percent of respondents who received training or mentoring said they were very likely to remain with their current employer for the next five years or more.

What our client didn't realize is that there were several options to improve John's management style. The company could invest in one-on-one coaching, professional development classes or other advanced certification. A cost-effective option would be to assign John a mentor from senior management for regular and formal check-ins. Meanwhile, there are also many online libraries that provide interactive, individual curriculums based on what employees need to learn.

Our client also realized that while they worked to improve John's management style, they simultaneously needed to rely on others in his team -- proven leaders within the company and even outside sources -- for true leadership.

The effectiveness of company leaders -- from the CEO and down through individual department managers -- is a crucial indicator of a company's success. Some of the core traits of a strong leader include:

  • Can delegate but also knows when to step in. A leader empowers his or her team to work independently but is able to make the "big decisions" when necessary.
  • Has a clear vision of the company and shares it with the team. Not only does this individual understand where the company is headed, he or she makes sure that everyone else understands it as well.
  • Responds to employee leadership needs in a constructive manner. Not only will a leader try to steer others, but he or she knows the type of feedback that resonates best with each team member.

Yes, these are challenging times for business owners. But with more attention spent on motivating and keeping employees (the most critical part of any business), the true leaders will weather the storm with their employees at their side.