Answering your calling, or diverting your calls?

Gwen Teatro reliably writes thoughtful and intelligent posts on her You’re Not the Boss Of Me blog, but one of her most recent set me thinking – both about her topic, and about national cultures. Her ostensible subject – summed up in the title Why Do You Choose Leadership – is certainly one that deserves attention.

As Gwyn points out:

In many organizations, there is this implicit assumption that everyone aspires to be a leader. As a result, leadership roles in these places are ever in danger of being populated by people who privately lack the interest or desire to develop the skill required to lead others effectively.”

As she goes on to point out, many organisations see promotion to leadership as the only route of progress and the desire for it as the only sign of ambition. Leadership has not only become a golden throne, so to speak, but has been elevated to a golden plinth as the end goal of any high performing individual’s career. Employees feel obliged to play along, either as they have no other way of getting their contribution or ability recognised or they see no other means of improving their own situation.

It’s a side point at this stage, but I recall a Harvard Business Review survey that compares three factors as indicators of success at the next level in different combinations:

Ability Engagement Aspiration Success at next level
N Y Y 0%
Y N Y 13%
Y Y N 44%

Ability trumps all (thankfully), but it seems a lack of aspiration is far less a handicap than a lack of engagement. Some of us really do have greatness thrust upon us, as Shakespeare once quipped, and some take his advice and don’t fear it. (But surely there’s a bigger question lurking here: why are people with no aspiration being promoted?)

Gwyn also highlights the ‘expert to leader’ dilemma, where organisations make the assumption that the ability to inspire and teach others comes pre-installed alongside the ability to do. These organisations were plainly not in any of the Maths or Physics lessons I attended as a child, highly skilled though my teachers doubtless were: as most of us have experienced – from the annoying end of the equation – these are actually distinct skill-sets. “Those that can’t do, teach” is an old joke, but an unfair one. If they’re paid to teach and they can teach, their ability to do is not so relevant. If they’re paid to teach and they can do but not teach, everyone has a problem.

Gwyn then proceeds with a checklist of motivational factors that she argues those looking to move into leadership should ask themselves to identify good and bad reasons for moving into a leadership role. It’s a very good list, and one I’d like to see talent managers and HR execs pinning to their wallboards and reviewing once or twice a week. But I see a few problems. It’s not that Gwyn doesn’t: she acknowledges that changing the current state of affairs:

[…] relies on the willingness of organizations to give greater value to, and make room for, those whose skills and talents lie elsewhere. It also relies on the willingness of individuals to examine their real motivations before throwing their hat in the leadership ring.”

My qualms start with the individuals, as the implication is that they will already have high levels of self-awareness. If they do, it’s a promising start: self-awareness is crucial to good leadership, but it’s quite a big ask. Perhaps that list should be circulated to employees rather than simply sitting on a pinboard in HR? It would be a refreshingly blunt way of an HR function spelling out what the organisation means by ‘leadership’, even if it might put a visionary cat among some of the pigeons. It might even, perhaps, be the start of the organisation’s Leadership EVP that helps the candidates check how well they fit against it.

Surely this utopian state of affairs also relies on organisations lowering the golden plinth of Leadership a few steps too, so that it no longer operates as the ultimate recognition and reward. Having noted “Position or status is your principal motivator” among her bad reasons for wanting a leadership role, is it too logical a response to suggest that we change the position and status markers within organisations to stop aspiration being such a major factor? If position or status counted for slightly less – I’m not suggesting we abolish them – perhaps they might glitter less alluringly to people we might prefer not to be attracted to them?

We also need other types of reward and recognition, so that contributions other than leading can receive their due – and these roles can attract those most likely to thrive in them. If we look at the contributions that are distinct to leading – inspiring others, coaching and mentoring, directing and co-ordinating the talents of others to maximum effect – is there actually any cast-iron link to ‘being in charge’ other than our traditional definition of leadership? Why, as in the case of one of our clients, did specialists confide a sense of feeling obliged to ‘get a foot on a ladder’ (to a leadership position) when their real aspiration was to enhance their specialist skills to the organisation’s benefit? And why did they feel that their real aspiration was going unrecognised – or might not be rewarded if they fulfilled it?

Organisations don’t only employ those attracted to leadership for the right and wrong reasons. They also employ those who aren’t attracted to leadership per se but want to develop and advance themselves, those around them and the company. (These are also the people that good leaders should be wanting to have around them, I can’t help but think.) Of all the ‘under the carpet’ problems raised by Gwyn’s article, finding a way forward for these people seems to be most organisations’ hardest challenge – possibly as it requires them to think the furthest outside the metaphorical box?

There’s another eternal side issue here too: the difference between leadership and management. How many people are driven by the personal benefits of management – being able to order others around, an elevated status and a sense of power – while reluctant to take on the responsibilities towards others that come with leading? Managing is an important contribution, but it’s not the same as leadership. Yet the emotional pull of the ‘leadership’ word sees it being applied in many situations where it’s not truly deserved – and often being claimed rather than awarded.

Which is where cultural differences struck me. I started to read the comments, and was reminded that the writer – and the majority of her audience – are American. There was talk of leadership having ‘chosen them’ that would, coming from British lips, invite ridicule in most contexts. While some where talking – I think – in terms of organisational choices for leadership development, one or two were speaking far more personally. Having read the likes of Matthew Syed, I’m possibly too far to one side of the ‘talent is born/made’ argument to be swayed, but I can’t imagine many British contexts in which “I was born to lead” wouldn’t be the kind of statement that would tempt your audience to glue your car door handles shut or stick inflammatory post-it notes on the back of your suit jacket.

But those who were talking about organisational choices have a good point. How many companies promote from among those who present themselves for upward progression, without too much questioning of the link between the reward and the motivation? In other words, do we promote those looking for promotion rather than those most likely to succeed? Do promotion panels need Gwyn’s checklist as much as the candidates?

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