(This article was written for the online course Write of Passage. We were asked to write an article that challenged conventional wisdom. I invite any reader to share their comments on this topic.)
Let’s Be Frank – Leadership Is Not For Everyone
“Leadership has long-since subscribed to the belief that the best way to reward and keep the keepers is to give them other people to keep watch over. It’s just the way the weird world of work works.” – Jodi Wellman, Forbes Article, What If You Don’t Want To Be A Leader
The Leadership Industrial Complex
Hands up if you have ever taken a leadership course? Nowadays, almost every organization provides leadership training for their employees in some fashion. From week long retreats to online courses, there is a leadership seminar out there to fit anyone’s time and taste. But has anyone stopped to ask if these trainings are worth the price?
As well, there is no shortage of leadership books on the market. A quick search on Amazon for “leadership” produced over 40,000 results in categories such as Motivational Management & Leadership, Business Leadership, Success Self-Help, Business Motivation & Self-Improvement, Workplace Culture, and Entrepreneurship. One of the most prolific leadership writers, John Maxwell, has over 100 books to his name. 33 of which include in the title the words lead, leadership, or leading, and much of the rest of his work is connected to leadership.
However, leadership training is really a new invention. Leadership became an academic field for modern study in the 1940s and 50s at Ohio State and Michigan. It seems like almost every college and university has leadership as a field of study. Private companies provide leadership training courses of all types and they are not cheap. For example, the Dale Carnegie school’s class title, “Develop Your Leadership Potential: Stop Doing, Start Leading” is three days for $2195. With all the thought that goes into creating leadership courses, I am surprised that many of them are based on a flawed assumption.
The Flawed Assumption
The core flawed assumption may best be expressed with a quote from John Maxwell:
“If you want to be a leader, the good news is that you can do it. Everyone has the potential, but it isn’t accomplished overnight. It requires perseverance.” John C. Maxwell
My two questions are these: Why do we assume that everyone can be a leader? Also, why are the psychological burdens of leadership rarely discussed?
Anyone Can Be A Leader?
Let’s begin with the simple fact that there are many people clearly unqualified to lead, whether due to temperament, incompetence, or lack of work ethic. Unfortunately, there are people who seek leadership positions solely to earn more money or gain prestige. While it is understandable that we want to reward leaders for their work, this leads to a tension where even those who are unqualified feel they have no other option for career advancement but to apply.
There is also a group of people who have the skills and talent to be a leader, but are never given the full understanding of what being in a leadership position entails. To my mind many leadership courses relate a generic, feel good story about leadership growth. The narrative is that moving into a position of leadership is important for career development and that while the journey may be challenging it is ultimately rewarding. I believe this story has led many people to take leadership positions that they soon regret and are unable to leave.
Again, I have not read every book or taken every course on leadership, but so far, I have not seen anything that starts out by telling people reasons why they should turn back now! To my mind, a leadership course should flush out some of the real pain points of leadership, such as:
Leaders are Exposed
A leader assumes responsibility for the team’s actions and accomplishments even when they don’t have control over these factors. Whether it is bad luck, environmental conditions, a few lousy team members, or just simply running into more talented and eager competition, the leader often gets more of the blame than is warranted.
Leadership is Isolating
It is not uncommon for leaders to become socially isolated in their organizations, especially as teams and companies grow larger. The leader may no longer be invited for a coffee at Starbucks, or given an invitation to a staff party. For those individuals who enjoy personal interaction, being left out of the social scene can sting and lead to sadness.
Leaders are Criticized for their Decisions
Being a leader means making decisions that affect the welfare of the group in the face of organizational objectives. This is especially true when a leader must make an unpopular decision. Think of cases where a leader must lay off good employees and old friends in order to keep the company afloat. Where are leaders prepared for this type of decision in these leadership courses or books?
A Solution – Hard Honesty
Therefore, I propose that all leadership training begin by attempting to convince people to drop out of the program or stop reading the book. Let’s give them real issues that leaders have to face. Not just the corporate case studies, but all the mundane things that really try a leader’s soul, including:
- People complaining about their schedule because they have to work the weekend
- Staff upset about the guy who always burns the popcorn in the break room
- The passive aggressive colleague who thinks all bosses should be distrusted.
Have would be leaders role play these situations to get a grasp on the foolish and silly stuff that takes up most bosses valuable time and energy. It should make clear that leading others can be thankless, tiresome, and taxing work. For many, they might stay happier as a follower since the higher pay never fully compensates for the psychological burden. A leadership program that starts out with this type of honesty is one that could truly produce strong leaders.
In their book Primed to Perform, authors Doshi and MacGregor challenge the idea that the only path to success in an organization is a single ladder that everyone fight to climb. They promote the idea of a land of a thousand ladders, where every employee creates a path for success that is unique to their position and abilities. In these cases, they become leaders in their field rather than bosses. This sets them up for a more rewarding career path away from supervision or management. For those who decide that leadership is not for them, they can go about finding what truly drives their passion and makes them feel alive.
“If ‘being a leader’ is understood as nothing more than simply being your true self, then the game changes. Your model of “leadership” now allows to be weak, disorganized, emotional, scared, timid, quiet, shy, not-so-reach, insecure, indecisive, spontaneous… It allows to avoid people when you don’t feel like talking to anyone, to shrug your shoulders and leave when you don’t feel like being assertive, to skip a workout when you don’t feel like sweating and hurting.” – Olga Reinholdt, Here’s Why You Don’t Need To Become A Leader
Now that is a leadership course to sign up for!