Don’t be a “leader”

The admonition “don’t be a leader” can raise eyebrows, especially when it comes from someone like me, who researches, writes, and speaks about leadership. So let me explain. More and more often, I see that people define being a leader as an endpoint, a destination, a permanent designation. In this way of thinking, becoming an executive who formally leads others is akin to earning a merit badge to add to all the other skill badges one collects throughout his or her career.

It’s disturbing that leadership is perceived as one more specialty, given that central to leading effectively is having a generalist’s mind- and skill-set. Leading is part of the human component of organizational life and thus requires an understanding of current psychology, sociology, intra- and inter-organizational dynamics, decision making, and more. It takes curiosity as wide as it is deep.

Management is about the present, and leading is about the future, as Linda Ginzel of the University of Chicago’s Booth School noted in her book, Choosing Leadership. The future is full of uncertainty and ambiguity, particularly in a knowledge economy where innovation and agility differentiate winners from losers. Here is where the abilities of generalists are so valuable. They draw upon multiple domains to discern patterns revealing what the organization, its customers, employees, and investors will want, need, and perhaps demand next.

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