Imagine asking a bright and charming 12-year-old, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”
And imagine that she responds, “In charge.”
“In charge? In charge of what?”
“I dunno. Whatever. As long as I’m in command.”
In a sense, that’s just who the modern leadership-industrial complex is catering to—to ambitious people who crave influence and authority, but who may not have any meaningful use for that influence and authority. In a sense, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry ($60 billion annually, by some estimates) that’s focused on egging on narcissists to be even more narcissistic.
But here the paradox of leadership: As management legend Warren Bennis has observed, most people who become good leaders don’t set out to become leaders. They simply set out to become themselves,in an authentic manner. And they deploy every means at their disposal toward that end. If others find that your personal form of self-expression is compelling to them, they will follow … and now you can call yourself a leader.
In other words, Bennis believed that leaders became leaders not by studying management processes, but just by giving themselves permission to do what they believed in and were passionate about.
Of course, if you do what you really believe in, you may well end up shunning leadership and management. You may choose to remain a teacher in the classroom than the hapless administrator tilting at windmills.
I’d add a qualification to Bennis’ point: If you do have a specific direction in which you really want to take people, you have a chance to become a leader. It’s one thing if you passionately want to take the local school district in a particular direction and you’re willing to make every effort to get others to join you in the effort. But it’s another thing if you just like the idea of being in charge or having a bigger paycheck or more “prestige.”
Most managers fall into that latter category, don’t they?
But if you fall into that latter category, you tend to be surprised by the resistance and hostility that attend your every moment. And you find that managing people is like trying to get a flock of ducklings to stand still.
Perhaps leading is like being a parent. It involves infinite headaches and sacrifices and lost sleep and diaper-changing. Only the person who truly loves the cause can survive the trauma and find it all worthwhile.
But the person who just wants the glory will at worst get eaten alive and at best just become ineffective and bitter.
There should be no shame in recognizing that you can make a greater contribution to society without a business card that reads, “Leader” or “Manager” or “Person in Charge of Getting Stubborn and Resistant Human Beings to move in the Same Direction Without Whining.”
The Difference Between Leadership and Greatness
It’s time to demystify some concepts of our management era, by pointing out two simple truths:
1. We all rightly admire great people and aspire to be one. But not every great person is a leader, and not every leader is a great person. Greatness is defined in many ways. Leadership is defined in far narrower ways.
2. If fewer people succumbed to the siren song of leadership—to the prestige, the paycheck, the perks—the overall level of leadership in our society would instantly rise, because many people with the wrong motives would be cleared out of the executive suites.
I base this view on years of watching (and advising and serving) top-level presidents and CEOs and senior executives of major organizations—some who succeeded at epic levels and some who didn’t. I base it on my own up-and-down experiences in management and leadership (albeit at a lower level than the head of a large organization). And I base it on years of working alongside influential leadership theorists who had to test which theories work in practice.
Greatness and leadership both require overcoming failures and obstacles and setbacks. But in the case of the leader, those failures tend to be particularlypublic. And there are often significant groups of people—followers, donors, the media, and rivals—who are willing to pounce on any weakness they perceive in you. That’s some tough brew—certainly not for everyone.
Not every mountain need be clumb, as they say. Just because leadership and management represent an imposing challenge doesn’t mean they should be your challenge. There’s greater honor and happiness in finding your own true path than in getting on a path that others (and perhaps your inner ego) try to sell to you.