“Maybe leadership isn’t for me!”

Used with permission.

While serving as president of the University of Cincinnati, leadership guru Warren Bennis was teaching a course at Harvard’s School of Education when someone asked him, “Do you love being President of the University of Cincinnati?” After an uncomfortable silence, Warren replied, “I don’t know.” He wrote about this incident in Managing The Dream:

The truth is that I didn’t love it and didn’t have the passion for it and that what I was doing wasn’t my own voice. I wanted to be a university president. I didn’t want to do university president. Now that was a huge lesson for me, because if there is one single thing I have found out about leaders is that, by and large if not every day, they seem to love what they’re doing…[The] question made me aware that administration wasn’t for me. I found my calling as an advisor and a coach to leaders.  

Managing/Leading vs Doing

Managing and leading are very different from doing. Of course, all leaders do a mixture of leading, managing and doing, just as any doer can also do some managing or leading (even if informally). It is just a matter of the percentage of time allocated to each activity.

You may be very skilled at doing, and you may be the best person on the team doing your work, but that doesn’t mean that you should manage or lead it. Our culture promotes the idea of career progression up a hierarchy, so most people aspire to rise as high as they can in their organization rather than staying at a level they are better suited for. (If you want to be promoted to management, here are my tips.)

Should you accept a promotion?

The problem with always seeking promotions is that you may be promoted right out of your areas of strength and into your areas of weakness. This is the Peter Principle: People are promoted to the level of their incompetence. How many people who are team members say to themselves, “I could lead this team better than that!”? They make the mistake of thinking that the ability to do is the qualification for the role of leader. Far from it. The skills for leadership are different from the skills needed for doing. Team members can get promoted and have no idea what leadership is really about, and then they fail as a leader or have a miserable time of it because it is not the sort of doing that they love and are good at.

Be what you are suited for

The sad thing is, when people are promoted beyond their competence, not only do you remove your best worker from the team and lose the related productivity, you also usually end up losing the person to your organization entirely because it seems the only way out of a leadership role is right out the organization’s door. I’ve always thought this is too bad. Surely there should be honour in recognizing your gifts and their limits and stepping down to pick up once again at the job where you were performing at your best. But our culture doesn’t cope with such ‘failure’ very well. I acknowledge that it would take a very self-aware person to be willing to step down to a different position (if a position should still be available). The unfortunate reality is that usually all  you can do is go to a new organization.

How to decide

So, should you continue in your leadership role? If you are having difficulty, two key questions are:

  1. Am I called to be a leader? See my post on discerning your call. If both you and your organization affirm your call to leadership, then persevere!
  2. Can I become the leader this ministry needs? It may be that you are called to lead, but for various reasons this ministry is not the place for you. But if you are called to lead this ministry and yet are experiencing difficulty, then professional development is what you need.  I’ve written a number of posts about professional development, but The most daring case study of all is by far the best starting point.

If you are not yet a leader but aspire to be one, the questions you should ask are:

  1. Am I really called to leadership? Again, see this post for a good discernment process.
  2. Have I already led, or could I arrange to lead, a project to test out my leadership skills before taking the risks of team or organizational leadership?
  3. What am I really attracted to: the leadership role, the perceived perks and privileges, or fullfilling societal expectations about career advancement? Do I have the right motivation?

All jobs are important

The upshot is that every position in an organization is important, valuable and respectable. One role is not better than another, it is just different. There are different risks and commensurate rewards with various levels of positions. Some are more demanding on your personal life than others, and some take their toll with heavier responsibility. But all positions can be satisfying and intrinsically rewarding. Which position that is simply depends on who you were made to be, what you have been called to do and your willingness to invest yourself in becoming excellent at what that role requires. For some, the answer is a leadership role and for others, it is a doing role. If you are not where you should be, the tragedy would be to not make a correction.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good….But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.
1 Cor 12:4-7, 18

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