Anyone can have direct reports. That doesn’t make them a leader. But not everyone has followers. At the heart of the issue is how people think about authority and how the deal with trust.
Earned Authority / Trust – Most of what we see in organizations, especially in the US, is an earned authority dynamic. With relatively flat org structures and a history of leadership abuses, many people approach their supervisors with a “what have you done for me lately” and “you have to earn the right to speak into my life” attitude. It doesn’t mean there aren’t reporting relationships but until each person comes to value and respect their boss, authority and trust aren’t earned.
Ascribed Authority / Trust – In other countries and cultures, as well as in highly rigid organizations like the military, people learn that authority comes with the role, not the person in the role. As someone new is put into a position with direct reports, they automatically have authority. And in those organizations, it’s often easy to watch how quickly someone trusts their new supervisor. All because of ascribed trust. We place our trust in you because of the role you’re in (and assume you wouldn’t have gotten the role if you weren’t worthy).
So with an understanding of these two dynamics, it’s easy to see how a supervisor could have staff without any real followers. That’s not what you call a leader.
A leader, after all, knows how to earn trust and leverage ascribed authority so that, in the end, they have more than direct reports. They have followers.