Drafted into Leadership

August 16, 2012

Corporate culture is obsessed with the term “leadership”. They pride themselves on being “leaders”, and for fostering “leadership” within their organization. We even have the idea that everyone is a “leader” in his or her own right, each taking personal accountability over what they do every day and “leading” in their own special way. I glaze over when people talk about leadership. I fully expect that you’re glazing over just reading the opening of this article. It’s old. It’s stale. We’ve heard it all before. At this point it’s boring. Someone who takes ownership of cobbling together a PowerPoint before a big presentation, and the people who lead troops to storm Normandy ain’t the same type of leader. They ain’t even in the same ballpark. Those types of leaders didn’t want to lead, they were drafted into it and rose to the occasion. To the rest of us, these are the people we want to call leaders.

Being drafted into leadership sucks. One day, you’re minding your own business, trying to do the best job you know how, and then someone taps you on the shoulder and asks you to take on a formal leadership role. The though is this: You’ve displayed an innate leadership ability (probably without trying) and if they give you an official title, you’ll be all the more effective. It’s hard to think of a more destructive thing. The reason you are (soon to be were) an effective leader is that you were, “one of us” – someone who worked with us in the trenches, and therefore had a pulse on what was really going on. As soon as you are promoted, you instantly become “one of them”. Furthermore, what used to come naturally to you now has to be forced through a sieve of “appropriate conduct”, further eroding any respect you may have garnered by working shoulder to shoulder with your peers. Instead of grinding away day-by-day buried in the suck, you’re away in some pointless meeting. Instead of being able to say, “That guy’s an incompetent [flip]”, you have to say, “He has an opportunity for improvement”. You’re neutered. You lost your mojo. And it’s not coming back.

Then there’s the thing that always gets me: Leadership – in corporate culture – sucks. They’re not leaders. They’re out for themselves, and to make themselves look good so they can climb to the next rung. Don’t talk to me about the exceptions, I’m talking about the rule. Once you become “one of them” you can’t go back to being “one of us” – there isn’t a reverse career path. Therefore, you have to claw and climb up the food chain because there is no place left to go but up. How do you rise in an organization? By putting yourself second to the needs of the team? In fantasy-wonderland maybe, but in the real world you follow the laws of power, and do what has to be done to outshine the next guy. Why? You have no choice – you’re a “leader” now. Don’t you have ambition? You don’t want to be a middle manager your whole life, do you? Besides, the higher your rise, the greater your ability to address broader organizational concerns, right? Keep telling yourself that. What’s the solution? Quit your job, and get hired on as a grunt somewhere else to re-boot your career. Either that, or settle in to spending the next decade of your life desperately clinging to the hope that one day you might be the next VP in charge of whatever, only to find out that your past loyalty to the troops hinders your ability to rise by stepping on them.

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I would like to point out that if we work together today, or have in the past, my opinions may or may not have been influenced by working with you. Most likely they have been, but I have to say that to avoid offending people. You're so vain. I bet you think this site is about you.