Leadership versus Management: The Difference Between Coaches, Role Models, Mentors, and Bosses

Leadership versus Management: The Difference Between Coaches, Role Models, Mentors, and Bosses

An Opinion Article by Marshall Officer

Introduction

It’s 2021, and I’ve switched gears. Last year, I wrote a collection of articles called the ‘Training Series’. These articles covered a variety of training concepts and lifts, written for anyone - from the complete beginner through to the expert coach. These articles weren’t meant as the be-all and end-all of physical training - they were a general overview of some key areas of physical training, with hopefully enough information for someone to read and develop even a basic level of understanding about any one particular topic. I wrote them, as not only am I a coach who works closely with injured veterans and competitive powerlifters, but I have been lifting for years and I love it. It is something I am passionate about, and I want to share that passion with anyone who is willing to listen. This year - I am writing about something else. Something that I am equally passionate about - leadership. My time in the military, as well as working in leadership positions ever since I left, exposed me to a huge range of leadership styles, techniques, and philosophies. I have seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the dangerous. I want to share this with whoever is willing to listen, too. 

This series is directed at anyone with an open mind and a willingness to learn. I said in my first article for the year, Junior Leadership in the 21st Century - no matter who you are, you will be exposed to leadership in some way at some point in your life. How you lead, and how you are led, is one of the most important driving factors in accomplishing just about anything in your life. Understanding how someone makes decisions, what they are trying to achieve, or why they might be approaching their role in a certain way, can give you the insight into reacting appropriately, and maximise your ability to not only succeed, but also flourish, regardless of the leadership you are exposed to at any given time.

Defining Leadership

How do we define leadership? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”, which isn’t very helpful. It’s like saying your boss is the person who bosses you around - we get it, we know what a leader looks like on paper. They live in the big house, they make the speeches, tell us what to do, where to go, and how to go about it. I don’t believe this definition alone is acceptable. The one thing it doesn’t tell us is how a leader should do these things effectively. How should they tell us what to do, how should they show us where to go, and most importantly - why should we listen to them? I define leadership as the facilitation of a group’s success, contextually dependent on who is involved, what needs to be accomplished, how long it is going to take, and why it needs to be done. 

The most important part of my definition is the word “facilitation”. In my opinion, a leader’s job is not to direct. It is not to order or tell, or be above challenge. It is to facilitate. Any team, regardless of age, gender, race, creed, or background, will have a variety of people who all have different experiences from which to draw. This means that for any given task, on average, the designated leader may not be the best person for that task. It is the leader’s job to validate and recognise the strengths of their team, while acknowledging their weaknesses - and subsequently use this knowledge to achieve success in the face of any difficulties, complications or adversity.

The other side of this coin is what I call ‘management’. It is the command structure to any organisation. History has shown that a collaborative environment is fantastic for new ideas, but for progress to be made - there must be some kind of management structure that decides what gets worked on first, and what takes a back seat. Without management, it would be very difficult for an organisation, or a team, to make progress in one specific direction - everyone would just do what they wanted all the time, regardless of how it impacted the organisation or group on a greater scale. Management is necessary, and therefore people must be placed in management positions. The problem is, from my personal experience - many of these people are not leaders. Whether through the fault of their own or those before them - many individuals in management positions are not facilitators. They spend more time directing, and not enough time understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the team which they lead. This is not the recipe for success. This is, most likely, the recipe for doing something the exact same way it has always been done, by them, and by whoever taught them - regardless of whether it is the best way to do it. Without flexibility, things may continue in the same way - and may not be the fastest, smartest, or even the most profitable way. Management without flexibility is the direct enemy of adaptability, and as such, is the direct enemy of progress. We need managers - but we must also teach those managers how to lead - by facilitating success.

What is a Boss?

When I ask anyone about their boss, they can probably picture someone very quickly - and the image is rarely positive. A good boss is still a boss, and at the end of the day - nobody really likes being told what to do all the time, especially when you’d rather be doing something completely different. You might work in a field you love, doing a job about which you are passionate, working with people who you can consider close friends - and still, you aren’t going to enjoy every minute of every day. It’s still work, and your boss is still the person responsible for ruining your illusion of free will. Even as a CEO, you’ll probably have a boss - there will be a board of directors telling you what to do. Work for yourself? Guess what, you probably work for whatever client is paying your invoices. You might be the expert, but it’s their job, and their money, and at the end of the day - they want what they want. You might have a boss for five minutes, five months, or five years - but you’ve got one, whether you like it or not.

Using our above definitions, these people are definitely going to be managers. Unfortunately, they are not necessarily leaders. So, why is this an issue? Because 99% of the time, you don’t get to choose your own boss. And, what do you do if it’s their job to tell you what to do, but they’re just shit at how they go about it? Well, there are two things I recommend to ensure success in any relationship with a clear power dynamic. First of all, objectivity is essential. Regardless of who this person is or how they live their life, you must be able to view them through a clear and objective lens. In doing this, you should be able to identify both their positive and negative qualities. Maintaining objectivity is a skill that must be practiced - and practiced frequently. Practicing objectivity allows you to communicate more effectively, which brings me to the second thing that will ensure success in this relationship - effective communication. I will go into this in further detail in other articles - but having the ability to speak to your boss in a way that allows them to not only hear but also listen to what you have to say is your responsibility, not theirs. Figure out what to say and how to say it effectively, and maintain your objectivity when they end up being human. Bosses are people too, and they have a whole life outside of their relationship with you. Understanding this can help you establish a successful environment, where they feel heard; their authority, experience, and abilities are acknowledged - and they are willing to listen to what you have to say when you believe you have something valuable to offer, giving the team a better chance at success overall. 

Remember, your boss probably has a boss, too - and they probably experience the same issues with their boss that you have with them - so, tell them to read my articles and maybe everyone will be a little happier to go to work on Mondays.

What is a Role Model?

Not all leaders are bosses. Some of the most important leaders in your life are your role models. So, what does a role model look like? A role model is someone who has certain behaviours, habits, mindsets, or methods that you want to directly replicate in yourself. A role model is someone you want to be like, in some way or another - based on your own values or what you want to achieve in your own life. Choosing a role model can be based on many different reasons - they might be someone you consider successful within a field of which you are both a part. They might be someone who does things a certain way or has a certain outlook on life that you admire. You don’t have to have just one role model - you can have many. If you are at a point in your life where nobody you can think of is worth emulating in any way - you don’t have to have any role models at all. Role models are certainly not essential - but, they can be extremely helpful when you want to make progress. If they’ve done it one way and established a version of success that you can relate to, emulating them can lead you towards the same kind of success, too. 

I have two main role models for different areas of my life. For business and coaching - Dave Tate, founder of EliteFTS. Dave has seen success as a powerlifter, a powerlifting coach, a business owner, an educator - and a human being. When I see and read the way he communicates and works with athletes, I see a man who understands that most people learn differently, and helping people become stronger isn’t just about telling them what to do - it’s about teaching them in a way that they not only understand, but also allows them to thrive and feeds their passion for strength. For other aspects of my life - my father. He is a man who has come from very little, who has and continues to accomplish an enormous amount professionally - despite setbacks that include significant career changes and losing his job. My father is my role model beyond a professional capacity - the relationships he has with anyone he interacts with on a daily basis, the relationship he has with my mother, and his role as a father to me and my sister, all inspire me to be better on a daily basis.

Your role models don’t have to be people you know - I’ve never met Dave Tate, and I don’t really know what he’s like as a person aside from what is presented to me online and in his writing. Regardless, a role model is someone who, from your perspective, has positive qualities that outweigh their negatives - and they display insight into their own areas for growth. They are leaders, and they indirectly facilitate your success by appearing to be the kind of person you would like to be. They’re probably not your boss, and they’re certainly not perfect. Whether it’s Elon Musk, Michelle Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or your mum - seek out people who consistently display qualities you think are important. They’re not essential, but they can be extremely helpful in helping you achieve your version of success.

What is a Coach?

If a boss is a manager, but not necessarily a leader, and a role model is a leader, but not necessarily a manager - a coach should be the sweet spot in between. I’m not talking about Personal Trainers, or the fitness industry specifically - a coach is someone with a degree of subject matter expertise, in an area in which you are looking to grow. For example, your piano teacher could be a coach. Your business development manager, law professor, or art teacher could be a coach. Coaches are unique in the sense that they only apply to one specific topic, within the dynamic of your relationship with them. A boss is work-related, a role model aligns with leadership in general - but a coach is someone who teaches you to be better at something specific. 

So, what makes someone worthy of being called a coach in my opinion? Not only should they have a discernible level of expertise in the subject they are teaching, they must also be a leader. They should facilitate your success - regardless of how you learn and what adversity or complications arise. A coach isn’t just the guy at the gym who tells you to do three more reps on your bench press and slaps you on the back when you’re done. Nor is a coach a subject matter expert with no regard or interest in how you learn. A coach is a teacher, who clearly knows what they are talking about but is also able to explain concepts in a way that you can understand. They want you to succeed and are willing to figure out the best way to reach your version of success - rather than just tell you what they know and make you do it the same way as everyone else, whether it works or not.

If you want to make progress in a specific area, you should seek out a coach. I have no problem with people out there who like to go it alone - but coaches generally love what they do, and are willing to help not only when things are going well, but also when you’ve hit a wall or can’t seem to make further progress. If they can’t help you themselves, they should point you in the direction of someone who can. Coaches aren’t essential to success - but they can be the difference between navigating a treacherous path with minimal setbacks, and failing before you’ve even begun because you have no idea where to start.

I’ve had many coaches over the course of my life - certain teachers at school who made a subject seem exciting even when in reality it’s just numbers on a piece of paper, and leaders in the military who somehow made digging a hole in the sand at 3am on my third day without sleep seem like it would help me be more successful in future. I’ve had coaches for an hour, and coaches for a few years. Open your mind to the expertise of others, and seek out leaders within the areas you want to make progress in. Coaches truly can take you to levels you may never have dreamed of achieving by yourself.

What is a Mentor?

Finally, on my list of leaders someone could have in their life - the mentor. A mentor is like a coach, except less present, and less subject-matter specific. This is the person you go to every so often for advice, guidance, for their perspective on a problem you’re trying to solve, or an issue you’re having in your life. Mentors aren’t necessarily subject-specific, as coaches are. They’re definitely leaders, and they might be managers for someone - but they probably aren’t directly responsible for managing you. They might be a coach, or a boss, or a role model. If you’re lucky, one person may fill more than one of these roles for you. A mentor isn’t there to teach you directly - they’re there because you value their opinion. They are someone you respect, trust, and look up to. Most importantly, they’re someone who you will listen to, even when they say something with which you don’t agree. Mentors aren’t essential either, but they are extremely valuable for one key reason - you are human, and you don’t know everything (no matter how much you think you do). Sometimes, you will be so involved in a project, a relationship, or an activity, that you just can’t help but react emotionally to it. A mentor is an excellent resource for helping you see the other side of the coin, or the grander scheme of things. You might feel like you’ve failed when things don’t go your way or a project doesn’t work out the way you expected it to - this is normal. A mentor is the leader you can speak to for the silver lining, the educational message in the experience, or greater awareness of perspectives you weren’t able to see because you were just too close.

I have had a couple of great mentors, and I always have my eyes peeled for others who can fill this role. The Major in charge of the Company with whom I returned from Afghanistan, Huw Kirby, is one of the few men that I met in the military who I would still consider a key mentor in my personal and professional development to this day. As a soldier, I was stubborn, had a chip on my shoulder about authority - and had a tendency to react emotionally when I thought we were doing something just for the sake of it, having no training value in my eyes. Talking to him helped me step back and create space for me to make better decisions - giving me the advice I needed, not wanted, to hear. Most importantly, he was someone to whom I was willing to listen, and who made me feel heard, even when he was telling me something I didn’t agree with. Since leaving the Army, I continue to look for mentors in the powerlifting community, especially other coaches who do things differently to me and see success - because I know now that my way isn’t the only way, nor is it always the best way. 

Seek out mentors, and use them often. Their leadership can be a light in the darkness, when failure is creating an emotional response - and you need the truth, not feel-good words.

Conclusion

This may not be the definitive edition of leadership positions, but it is the guide I use. I guarantee that at any point in your life, you will be exposed to people who could be bosses, role models, coaches, or mentors. It is important to your personal success to be able to assess these individuals as managers and as leaders. Did you choose them or not? Is it their job to manage you, or do they occupy a leadership position for you because they facilitate your success, either directly or indirectly? When you can categorise the leaders and managers in your life in this way, you can more effectively utilise them where they will have the most impact. If you are a manager, what kind of manager are you? What kind of manager do you want to be? Are you a boss, just going through the motions - or are you a leader, facilitating the success of your team by actively listening to what your team has to say, maximising their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses? If someone is coming to you for advice, are you aware of your position as a mentor? If you are a subject matter expert, are you a coach, teaching your students in a way that facilitates their success? Or, are you just telling them what worked for you and forcing them to teach themselves - setting them up for failure if they can’t figure it out on your timeline? Being a boss doesn’t just make you a leader. Being a subject-matter expert doesn’t make you a coach. And, having experience doesn’t make you a mentor. Finally, seek these people out - don’t wait for them to fall into your life. Your version of success depends on who you allow to lead you along the way, and it is your responsibility to choose the right ones.

 

Train Smart. Train Hard.

 

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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)

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