This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
When you boil it down, leadership and manipulation are identical twins. They both cultivate relationships with people. They both wield influence over people. They both home-in on the strengths and weaknesses of people. They both aim to get other people to do what you want them to do. And the highest form of each is getting other people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. Yet, leadership is regarded as a good thing and manipulation is regarded as a bad thing. How can that be?
While there is a fine line between the means of leadership and manipulation, there is a stark difference in their ends. The manipulator works to benefit the manipulator. The leader works to benefit the group, the cause, and the individuals that make up the group. The manipulator aims to make more money, consolidate more power, avoid consequences, and look good in front of others. The leader aims to create meaning, distribute power, embrace consequences, and do good for others, knowing that all the things the manipulator aims for will eventually come as a byproduct. The manipulator puts themselves at the top of their list; the leader puts the team at the top of their list. And because the manipulator and the leader are so similar in their behavior, it is difficult for the untrained eye to pick up on the subtle differences.
In Know When to Lead, I told the story of how I went about replacing the lazy head chef of my restaurant. Because he was the owner’s pick, and because the restaurant was brand new, I had little leverage to make a change immediately (even though I saw the train wreck coming from miles away). So, I resorted to subtle, orthogonal tactics to steer the head chef into willingly removing himself. Was it manipulation? Slightly. I was doing it for the benefit of my sanity as a new leader of a large operation. But because my ultimate goal was to benefit the kitchen staff and the restaurant as a whole, this example falls squarely under the umbrella of leadership. Of course, as a leader, rarely will you have to resort to such covert tactics to get your team to do what you want them to do. It could be as basic as getting them to show up on time. Or as simple as getting them in the habit of carrying out their responsibilities correctly. But with every decision you make, you must ask yourself who it is serving. Your ego? Or the good of the mission? You must realize that you are always walking the fine line between leadership and manipulation. In the moment, your people may not pick up on the subtle difference. But over time, like humility and insecurity, the leader or manipulator within you becomes crystal clear to everyone around you.
And while it is crucial to monitor yourself as a leader, your ambitions, your incentives, and those of other leaders, it is equally important for you to know who the manipulators are within your ranks. I’ve mentored, managed, and led thousands of people over the last decade, and I’ve seen almost every type of person and how they operate. With such a large data set, it’s remarkably easy to see how starkly similar humans really are. Everyone thinks they are the first and most unique case. When they give excuses for calling out of work, they think that’s the first time the boss has ever heard that excuse. When they give excuses for why they didn’t hand in an assignment on time, they think that’s the first time the professor has ever heard that excuse. But given the fact that there are more subordinates than leaders in the world, it’s much easier for the leader to recognize patterns and sniff out the manipulator in a crowd. Lower-level manipulators are in it for themselves. They are the “starving” individuals, the “bitter” salesmen, and the lazy head chefs. They aim for promotions over process. Because you, as the leader, hold the keys to their ultimate ends, it is critical that you not be fooled by manipulators. And while their methods may look harmless to most, your ability to know the difference will determine the success or failure of your team’s mission.
Whether you are a leader, follower, or bystander, it is essential to learn the difference between manipulation and leadership. While they are two sides of the same coin—two surfaces of the same plane, the truth will always be revealed in time. But like insecurity, if you wait for other people to tell you about it, it’s probably too late.