Is "Leadership" Overvalued?

Filed in Uncategorized by on February 6, 2006 0 Comments

Every society gives its people two educations: an "Academic" education, and an "Environmental" education. The academic part is pretty self explanatory, while the environmental education can be a bit harder to pinpoint– having mostly to do with the lessons we learn from societal values and beliefs.

Not so long ago, an acquaintance of mine was "let go" by a major computer company because he expressed a lack of interest in the management position he had been offered. The company "regretted" that they were not interested in keeping employees who were not "leaders" and, after 12 years, he found himself out of a job. His plight made me sit down and think about the value of certain core lessons we are taught in this country.

I was born in Denmark. I have lived in about a dozen different countries during my 45 years, and one of the things I have learned is that every society has its own "personality," largely based on what that country's citizens consider to be "important" to their way of life. In all truth, I suppose that nobody has the "right" answer, just "their" answer.

Some of the most consistent parts of the "environmental" education taught in the U.S. are the qualities/traits I will describe as "Leadership" and "Competitive Success." This country excels in these areas, rising above pretty much all other societies. If I needed someone to "take charge" of a situation, I would look to the U.S.A.

How does this come to be?

Along with math and writing, what do we teach "Little Johnny?" How to be strong. How to be a leader. How to be "large and in charge." How to "achieve." How to "get ahead." Esteem is awarded to those who "win," and then more esteem is awarded for actions taken "while in charge." An intricate tapestry of "ways to assert leadership" has been woven into American society to support this set of values– ranging from the "German Club" in Junior High to the corporate structures of Fortune 500 companies. Whether you're trying to become President of the German Club or President of IBM, the focus is almost heavily directed at who and how to become "top dog." Organizational structures are heavily centered around "positions of responsibility;" a company with six total employees may have a President, Treasurer, two Vice-Presidents, and so forth. And if we don't "lead," we are "failures."

In the case of my friend, the less attractive flip side to this coin is that this great nation awards very little esteem and consideration to those who are simply highly skilled at their craft, in their profession, and care for little more than that.

What do I mean by that?

Someone who is a brilliant programmer or cook (for example) is not "valued" nearly as highly as a mediocre programmer or cook who "manages" a group of eight other programmers or cooks– or just plain people. The brilliant programmer (or cook, or salesperson) is actually often considered an "underachiever" or an outright "loser" for not wanting to "Manage," for not wanting to "Be In Charge." This, in spite of the fact that they are actually doing better work than the less skilled "Manager."

Interestingly enough, many business texts discuss the concept that "everyone is promoted to their highest level of INcompetence." At the same time, these words are broadly ignored in practice since almost no company is willing examine (not abandon, just examine) the possibility that "promote to management" may not always be the path of maximum quality and productivity. Yet, in some cases– like my friend's– lack of "desire to lead" can be the kiss of death.

As a part-time business consultant, I often see the effects of this promote-to-manage-at-all-costs philosophy. "Jane Smith" starts a business because she's better at making model furniture than anyone else, and she really loves the process of making it. People simply adore her furniture, and order lots of it. So Jane hires a helper. Jane now spends 30% of her time supervising someone who's not as good at making furniture, and only 70% actually making her own furniture. Business grows, and now Jane has to add another helper, and then someone to answer the phone, and then a bookkeeper. At this point, Jane is only spending 20% of her time making model furniture, and 80% of her time "managing" and putting out the fires caused by the people she is managing. Jane doesn't even like managing, and she is not be very good at it, either. What's more, Jane's furniture now lacks the fine quality it once used to have because Jane (herself) really doesn't make furniture any more. However, by almost every societal measure Jane is considered extremely successful.

Now, I'm not trying to make a judgment as to what is a "right" or "wrong" approach– but I am perhaps trying to shine a light on a possible reason why we get such bad service at the bank, at fast food restaurants; or why your latest clock, coffee maker, or lawn mower breaks so quickly. When we start to complain, let us not forget that all these products come to us courtesy of the very lowest people on the totem pole, because those who could do a better job have long since been promoted to management.

I am by no means trying to condemn anyone who wants to be "large and in charge." Far from it. This country is full of brilliant leaders with lots to offer, and they should certainly be rewarded for their contributions to the overall picture. However, I am suggesting that perhaps we could be better off if we were to give "equal time" and rewards to those who care for no more than to be the very best at some skill– without trying to become "The Leader." And where do those teachings begin? With parents teaching their children that "winning" and "leading" isn't the only possible way to become a "Successful Human Being."

About the Author ()

Writer and global nomad, born in Denmark, now living in historic Port Townsend on the Puget Sound, near Seattle, WA. I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person, as per Dr. Elaine Aron), enneagram type Nine, Myers-Briggs INFJ, my birth number is Nine, Introvert

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