“Anyone can be a leader.”
This myth, rooted in the same misconception as “a person can become anything he puts his mind to,” has a more subtle effect than its predecessors in our list. In the same way that a one or two degree trajectory shift does not seem significant at the onset, the longer someone believes this myth, the farther he travels on that erroneous trajectory, and the greater the distance between his reality and his aspirations.
Recognizing this is a contentious topic, let me explain before I offend anyone’s sensibilities further. We are taught this myth from the very beginning, especially here in the US. It is, after all, “The American Dream” that everyone has the opportunity to make of himself whatever he wishes.
But there is a difference between opportunity, which is almost always a positive, and this misconception. I heard a comedian say not long ago that nearly every man in the country would be a fireman, an astronaut, or a professional athlete if we could become anything we wanted to be. After all, isn’t something along those lines the dream of many little boys?
So why are there so many people doing so many other things?
The answer is simple: because self-aware people tend to sort to roles and environments where they can excel, where their talents are valued. Though it will surprise some in the leadership space, not everyone wants to be a leader, much less can perform the role well.
The point, though, is not desire. The point is aptitude. Leaders can, and should, be measured on outcomes. It is not the number of followers that defines a leader, but what she does with her influence. Boiling everything else away, the reason not everyone can be a leader is simple: not everyone can produce positive outcomes in every circumstance. If they could, we would never fire leaders in organizations, nor would we have to interview more than one candidate for any leadership role. If everyone could do it, there would be no such thing as diversity or specialization. We rightly celebrate these in other areas, but when it comes to leadership, we seem to want to have it both ways. This, however, is impossible.
If we want a future oriented visionary to take our organization forward with ideas and innovation, we go out and find someone who can do that—someone who has proven (again, outcomes) ability to accomplish this. Similarly, if we want to orient our organization toward customer service and employee retention, we seek a leader who has the ability to engage and empathize. Can vision and empathy exist in the same person? Of course, but to think that we can hire for one and train the other when no empirical evidence to support that ability exists is folly.
More specifically, though—do we really think that any person in our organization could be CEO, COO or CIO? I submit that not even the individuals in those roles could perform the leadership function of the others. More importantly, they might not perform the leadership functions of more local level leaders well. This street runs both ways.
At a social level, a more accessible level perhaps, this truth proves obvious also: how many people do you know who can calm a room of 25 squirrely 10 year olds? Do we really think that anyone could lead in that situation? Does everyone have the patience to have 5, 8, or 10 children of their own, or are many of us overwhelmed by 2 or 3? How about day care providers? Would you trade places and do just as well as those with the best outcomes? The answer for most of us is, “Certainly not!”
Even in entertainment, this is the case. Consider American Idol, where hopefuls audition in front of a panel who have proven outcomes in the field of their aspirations–some of them are instant contenders; others are, to put it bluntly, delusional. This is not to say that the individuals who clearly cannot sing have no talent, just that singing isn’t the area where that talent exists. Why should specific realms of leadership be any different? Not everyone would thrive as a CEO, just as not everyone thrives as a parent. Why isn’t it simply OK to say, “I know many people in this world are good at that, but I’m not one of them”?
And yet we persist in this myth, when the remedy to it is plain: lead in the place where we add the most value based on outcomes. Stop trying to be all things to all people, or to lead in ways that are not natural for us. That does not mean we stop learning or stop trying to expand our skill sets—far from it—rather, it means we focus our energy and investment where it can elicit the greatest return.
The places where we are actually leading, not merely doing the best we can.
What do you need to do more, and less, of in order to lead well? Could that include not leading at all in certain areas?