Does Everyone Need to Lead?

leadershipA great piece in the New York Times this weekend discussed the frenzied world of the college application process and the perceived need for “leadership” abilities. It begged the question – if you aren’t leadership material, could/should you be admitted to college? Of course, the answer is yes. Everyone who has the opportunity can and should go to college, regardless of leadership potential. But apparently, “leadership potential” is now the favored characteristic so the scramble for high school kids is to lead anything. However, as the author rightly points out, without followers, nothing would ever get done. So, is everyone having leadership skills really the best focus?

The lesson here for entrepreneurs is that not everyone on your team wants to lead, let alone has the capacity to lead. How many times has the best salesperson or top engineer been promoted to a leadership or management position only to fail badly? More often than I can count. Occasionally it works, but only when that individual also has some innate leadership strengths.

Fully functioning productive teams have people of all stripes who are good at the job or task they are supposed to do. Everyone can lead at times, but everyone doesn’t need to be a leader, all the time. Much like Tom Rath points out in Strengthfinders, people are only really great in their areas of strength and some just don’t want or have the inclination to be a leader. And that’s perfectly okay. Unfortunately, our culture is obsessed with leadership being the coveted position at the top of the ladder. Therefore, if you want to get ahead, you must move into a leadership spot. Frequently, this is a recipe for failure. We need expertise at every level, in every position. One is not better than another, just different.

As business leaders identifying, not assuming, leadership potential within your team is your job. Giving people the opportunity to show their talents, how they perform and what their interests are is the best thing a leader can do. The team will generally sort itself out. The good leader watches which way the currents are going in the stream and goes with the flow, not against it. Promoting someone because they really want to lead or it’s their “turn,” when you know they have no capacity for it is not good management. You run the risk of lowering the overall performance of the team and putting the leader in a no-win position. It’s a lose-lose.

Take a look at your team or your company and make sure that vital and important non-leadership positions are viewed by the rest of the company in a positive light. Remember, as Jim Collins of Good to Great fame teaches – it’s not only having the right people on the bus, it’s about having them in the right seats – and that means the leadership seats as well.