When professionals are assessed for different jobs, I typically ask them about their aspirations. Nine out of ten inevitably give an answer that includes the word “leadership.” Many of these professionals have built successful careers by applying their individualized technical skills and intellect to achieve amazing results. Why, then, do they have their sights set on leadership?
The answer isn't mysterious. Because leaders are visible and inspiring, leadership is an aspiration. Athletes and rock stars are visible and inspiring, too. But neither athletes nor rock stars are leaders (necessarily), and very few fans of Michael Phelps or Lady Gaga expect to emulate their success.
But like many, I grew up with a perception of leadership that focused on status, achievement, and impact. Leading others meant you’d made it, that you’re in charge, that you’re bold and assertive, that you’re differentiated from the pack. Little did I know that you can enjoy all of the status, achievement, and impact without applying any formal leadership. Think of supreme court justices, real estate moguls, surgeons, and Pulitzer prize winners.
Nowadays, I prescribe to the servant-leader model that stresses prioritizing the needs of others over your own. I recognize that leadership isn’t necessarily exalted or rare, and that while the product of leadership is powerful, the work of leader is not glamorous or aggrandizing. When ambitious professionals get exposed to what leadership is really about they often struggle and balk. To most, making wine isn’t as rewarding as drinking wine.
I also recognize that the leader/follower dichotomy is trap, and a zero sum game. Being a follower has all sorts of negative connotations in our culture, like weakness, indecision, and naivete. Sorry to indulge in semantics, but I prefer a word like “participant” to “follower.” In reality, participants can and should exert their own leadership – but it can be episodic or depend on situation. Would anyone argue that EQ, courage, and innovation are the property of leaders alone? Of course not!
The takeaway is that appreciating leadership doesn't mean that it’s the best application of your skills, interests, and attributes. Working with (note: not “for”) a leader isn't subordinating – it’s actually empowering. And there are plenty of ways to be successful and special without leading large groups of people. So I spent a few minutes thinking about the questions that might differentiate leaders. Think about them, and ask yourself, do I really want to lead?
Have you regularly found yourself leading people throughout your life, such as your family, friends, and classmates?
Would you rather lead with a moderate chance of failure, or contribute and be assured wild success?
Have you ever produced a star or made someone else as successful as you?
Do you really love working with people? Or merely tolerate others to avoid distraction?
Are you intrigued by the grey areas of life? Are you comfortable with messy, complex, and ambiguous decisions?
Do you spend time thinking about what makes people tick, including yourself?
Are you curious about human nature and what people are motivated by?
Can you imagine turning around a situation without doing any of the substantive work?
Are you comfortable confronting people’s deepest fear in times of change?
Do you feel up for being on tap and accountable all the time?
Do you really want to lead... ?