Guide versus Lead: Are They One and the Same?

My post, Influencers: A Trend Long Before Social Media, acknowledged the fact that we’re all influenced by others, whether we admit it or not. From a young age, we’re taught leadership skills and trained not to follow the crowd, but nobody’s one-hundred percent a leader or a follower. Whether we tend to be a leader or prefer to let someone else take that role most times, we all likely guide somebody, maybe when we don’t even realize it.

We often use lead and guide as synonyms, which they are indeed. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary uses each word in the other’s definition; lead means, “to guide on a way especially by going in advance,” while guide is, “one that leads or directs another’s way.”  Although the terms are grammatically interchangeable, the way we manifest the verbs can be pretty different. How so?

To illustrate, take a compass or even a modern-day GPS. Both devices provide instructions on how to guide you to a destination or at least keep you acclimated, but can we aptly call them leaders? Sure, advancements have made GPS systems more reliable, with them able to tell us the current traffic and weather conditions as well as pit stops we might enjoy along the way. If given the choice, however, wouldn’t someone—yes, a human. They still exist!—familiar with the area offer better leadership? They’d be able to tell you the best route based on more than duration, how weather conditions affect specific roadways, and whether you’re headed for Hershey Amusement Park or a park in Hershey, Pennsylvania (I speak from experience).

Likewise, we can be guided by somebody who may not have the best insight or at times the best motivation for dishing out the appropriate guidance. Being handicapped, I’ve encountered well-intentioned people, even professionals, who have provided me with input about solutions to problems I don’t have. They might have the knowledge and good sentiments behind the advice, but without understanding of my individual circumstances, they can’t point me in the direction I need.

On the other hand, a true leader goes through the same challenges as the ones who follow him. Harkening back to the definition, leaders go in advance rather than just barking instructions from the sidelines or behind the crowd, perhaps saying, “I’ll catch up with you.” Thus, they speak with confidence in what they suggest, and they’re likely to win others’ trust in turn. A skilled leader is also wise to listen to his followers’ limitations so that he can better navigate them through potential pitfalls. After all, doesn’t every good pilot perform a pre-flight check on his/her plane to ensure the aircraft’s safety before leading his passengers into the skies?

All this said, leaders don’t always have the leg up on guides. As I mentioned in the outset, everybody becomes a guide on occasion, and in certain cases, a guide is what someone needs. Some people don’t take well to a bold, assured leader, but they react more positively to a gentle guide. If we want to benefit somebody like that, we may need to fight our leadership instincts and just offer those subtle nudges accordingly.    

No matter which side of direction we may be on, we should never take the preciousness of it for granted. Life presents many uncharted waters, so we naturally need each other to remain afloat. Whether we look for a guide or leader or aim to be one when the situation calls for it, we can do our best to foster trust and understanding. Even a simple word of guidance can lead somebody down the right path.

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