The Leadership Falacy

Zen Digest

  • Not everyone is a leader.
  • You don’t have to be a leader – that is OK.
  • Leadership is a skill, but not one that necessarily makes you better.

The Whole Picture

Years ago I applied for a job that I figured I was a shoe-in for.  I was friendly with the founder of the company and had many friends who worked there as well.  Additionally, it was a role I was well qualified for.  I went through a few rounds of interviews with different people in the company when the founder finally told me that I didn’t have the job.  His words were “We already have too many chiefs, and need more Indians.”  It was another way of saying “too many cooks spoil the broth.”  You can’t simply have a company of leaders, it ends up being counter productive.

A few years ago, as part of my job, I had to convert (and ultimately read) over 50 motivational books from an amazing publisher.  A bulk of the books were self-help and business oriented.  Nearly all of them told you to be a leader.  Which is great advice if you want to be a leader, and for those driven to be a leader, can make you extremely successful, but being a leader isn’t for everyone, and that is completely OK!

American culture and education teaches us to idolize the individual.  Look up to Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, etc.  Not to say that these people didn’t have a big impact on the world, and that certain aspects of their accomplishments shouldn’t be admired, but what’s missing is the respect and attention that should be drawn to the people around those leaders that made greatness possible.  Michael Jordan had a team of players to help run plays, pass the ball, and score points.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had slews a great designers, programmers, and other employees to help them build wonderful and amazing products.  None of the above leaders would have been successful if it weren’t for those other individuals.

Imagine a large sailing vessel.  You can only have one person steering the ship.  For that person to be effective the rest of the crew workers need to do their jobs well.  The lookout needs to spot obstacles, the sail crew needs to adjust the sails, etc.  Just because the captain has control of the wheel doesn’t make them any better or more important than the other jobs, it simply gives them the power.  Additionally, some people’s skills are in being a lookout – spotting small details – and not in setting the course or direction of a ship.  Yet leadership books suggest you should always strive to drive the ship…

What’s most important is to figure out what you love to do, and how you can do it productively.  If you love managing people, or leading, great, but if not, you need not work on that skill to be successful.  Success is being a good, productive, and happy member of society.


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