I was asked to write a blog on the topic of something to the tune of “So You’re Not a Leader.” This is a sensitive topic in today’s culture. Leadership, in many ways, is held up on a pedestal. Something to aspire to. Something to achieve.
I’d like to begin with a story I heard over a decade ago about “Robert.”
Robert worked for a great organization. He was amazing as the story goes. Bright and brilliant. A real star. Robert worked in sales – best performer on the team, actually. Literally the number one guy. Robert’s manager got a promotion. Can you guess what happened to Robert? Yep. He was selected to move into his manager’s role. Now Robert was the sales team’s leader. Let me fast forward to the end. Approximately a year or so later Robert had gained 20 lbs. He was depressed. He hated coming to work. He didn’t realize how high maintenance salespeople were until he had to lead them. He spent his days trying to please everyone and often felt like he was failing everyone. He eventually left the company. Guess what? Robert was smart – he found a new sales role – as a salesperson – not a sales manager. He became the best salesperson there.
Leadership has too often become a status symbol. “They’ve made it.” “They must be really good at their career.” “They must be really smart.” “They must make really good decisions.” And on and on and on.
The truth is there is not one single person in leadership that is better than one single person who is not in leadership. As a culture, we have met a need, certainly an important and noble need, with a generalized solution. Let me explain. Humans in general want to grow and develop. We are learners at heart. We want to feel that we are adding value, expanding, building and making a meaningful difference. As means of helping people achieve this, we’ve gotten lazy. In most cases, in most businesses, we’ve given people one track to meet this need – moving into a managerial position. We tell these smart, driven, successful performers that what they are doing isn’t worthwhile. That in order to really “make it,” you need to move into management. Then we dangle carrots: more money, more responsibility, the ability to be part of important decisions, etc.
As a result, many achievement-minded individuals are drawn into these roles or they become frustrated because such a role is unavailable to them. They leave the organizations they are a part of to seek out these leadership roles – taking with them valuable knowledge and insight. This costs organizations in more ways than one.
The truth is leadership isn’t for everyone. When did we become a culture in which if you don’t move into leadership you are “less than?” That your options are “limited.” Leadership is tough – but so is not being in leadership. We all know the effects in a culture and organization when you have people in management that are not good managers. Why do we point the finger at them? More than likely they weren’t promoted into that role because they were the laziest employee on the team, or because everyone hated them or because they could never get anything done. No, we promoted them because we saw value, we saw promise. And then we told them that the only way this value really matters is if you get a management position.
We need to do better for our employees. We need to change the stigma that if you show up for your 10- or 20-year reunion, and you aren’t in leadership, that you are somehow “not as good.” We need new career pathways for our employees. Ways that they can experience movement and career growth and progression without needing to move into management. We need to promote our subject-matter experts and value the fact that leadership can happen at any seat in an organization. That leadership isn’t only about managing people and teams. That any employee can grow and “be promoted” because of increased value, thought leadership, stakeholder influence, etc. The people in your organization can lead from any seat they have.
Does your organization have a promotional path outside of management and formal leadership? If so, I’d love to hear from you. If your organization doesn’t, let’s get the conversation going.