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With 1 Sentence, the Founder of Priceline Just Explained the Key Difference Between Great Leaders and Mere Managers

Truly great leaders don’t just attract followers. Instead, they maximize their impact by inspiring others to become leaders, too.

Sadly, many people in leadership positions don’t understand this. They feel inadequate–and the truth is, they often are. So for them it’s all about the roles–exercising their power, adhering to positions on an org chart, and reminding the people working for them who’s the boss (and who works for the boss).

That’s not a great leader. It’s a mere manager.

With that in mind, meet Jay Walker. If you don’t know his name offhand, you’ll know the companies he started–Priceline, for one, and Upside, which launched earlier this year and is already on track reportedly to raise $100 million in startup funding. As a result of his new venture, he’s back in the news, and in one of his appearances he offered one of the best distinctions between true leaders and managers you’ll read anywhere.

The context: a Q&A with Adam Bryant in The New York Times.

Bryant asked Walker about his parents, his childhood, and his management style–but he also asked him an interesting question: “Let’s say I came to work for you. What should I know about what you’re like as a boss?”

Walker’s unvarnished answer is well worth reading.

“You work for you”

Walker’s response runs about 200 words — but the first part is the most important. For that matter, we can highlight a single four-word sentence that encapsulates everything:

“I would correct you right out of the box. My style is not to perpetuate a false illusion that you work for me. You work for you. You get up every day and you come in here because you want to be here. We’re not having a discussion about who’s in charge. If you have a better idea, great. Let’s hear it.”

Emphasis added: “You work for you.”

A great leader understands that the relationship between a leader and his or her followers isn’t cast in stone. It’s fluid, or perhaps more accurately, it’s recast every day. It’s a constant choice.

Each morning when we get up and set off to work, we choose to do that because we believe it represents the best way we could be spending our limited time on the planet. Or at least, we should be making that choice–and a great leader wants us to. Otherwise, we’re just complacent.

It’s an idealistic notion, I understand. We work for other reasons–because we need the money obviously, and because we desire fulfillment. But we also work because we’re  scared of the alternatives.

In an ideal world, wouldn’t do that. We’d work for others largely because we trust them to lead us to a place where we’ll be better versions of ourselves.

It’s crazy. It’s idealistic and over the top. But a truly great leader doesn’t care. He or she has a vision, and wants others to achieve it. Not for his sake as a leader–but for theirs.

“You wouldn’t want me to manage anything”

Here’s something most hiring managers (that word again) won’t admit: Leadership isn’t a very marketable employment skill. Oh, we like to think it is–but what most employers want isn’t leadership; it’s management.

They want people who can guide others through set, established processes. They certainly don’t want “leaders” who would tell their most effective employees that if they wake up one day and decide they no longer want to devote their skills to the corporate cause, then they should go do something else–with the leader’s blessing.

Walker recognizes that as well, along with the fact that he’d be a terrible manager.

“I’m not a manager, and you wouldn’t want me to manage anything you were running,” he says, in response to another of Bryant’s questions, adding, “I’ve always hired managers to do the job of management, which is no insult at all. It’s not beneath me in any way. It’s just not my strength. … Create things? I’m your guy. Solve unusual problems? Maybe. Dream up whole new ways to approach things? I’m your guy. Manage? Not so much.”

That comes across as a bit dismissive, and Walker is careful to say that he doesn’t mean to insult managers. But he clearly believes that they’re far more common than great leaders are.

The brutal truth is,  he’s right–and just about everyone who’s worked for someone else knows it, firsthand, whether they admit it freely or not.

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