Chapter OneWhere Does Leadership Fit in Your Life?
As counselors and trainers of executives, we've noticed our clients expressing new feelings and patterns of thought in recent years. Many of the leaders we work with seem less sure that they've found the best place for themselves in the world simply because they have found a leadership position. Despite high levels of achievement, they often admit to a feeling that something isn't right.
From conversations and other interactions with many who have passed through our leadership training programs, we've concluded that the problem often is that they have assumed leadership roles without thinking through what being a leader means to them personally. Although they may feel that they are in charge of the daily aspects of being a leader, they have never carefully examined how their work as a leader derives from or serves their personal goals, values, and abilities. As a result, they feel uncertain about whether they're spending their best years doing what they really want to do.
Do you sometimes wonder whether being a leader is really worth your while, given all the other things you could be doing with your life? Are you finding that holding a leadership position is different than you anticipated? Do you feel uncertain about whether you were cut out for leadership? Are you a prospective leader who's wondering whether leadership is really where you want to be? In this chapter, we'll explore questions like these and explain how the rest of this book can help you resolve them on a personal level through structured sets of discussions, questions, and exercises.
In essence, this book addresses two main questions: If you find yourself in a leadership position today or hope to enter or reenter leadership in the future, do you have a vision of what you'd like your leadership work to accomplish for you personally as well as for your organization? And are your personal goals, values, needs, and resources such that your work in leadership can truly be both personally rewarding and outwardly fruitful?
DID YOU CHOOSE A CAREER IN LEADERSHIP?
Between us, the authors, we have nearly half a century of experience in assisting executives in the development of their talents and careers. In the past decade or so, more and more of our clients have come to us with questions about their place in the world of leadership and the place of leadership in their lives. Previously, they would come to us to help them understand their strengths and developmental needs or to grapple with issues such as how to become a more effective agent of change; how to confront structural problems in the organization; how to handle politics or difficult co-workers; or how to minimize the tremendous stress of executive roles. Then we began to hear more worries from executives about their fulfillment as leaders than about their functions as leaders. We heard them expressing more dissatisfaction with their work lives. Even when performing well in their work, they expressed reservations about not having control over the personal aspects of their careers.
Of course, we've wondered why such issues have become more common in recent years. Some reasons may lie mainly within the individuals. Has the human potential movement shifted many people's concepts of what constitutes a happy life? Is a new generation of executives demanding more personal meaning in their work lives? Have there been changes in career patterns or family relationships? To all of these questions the answer is most likely yes. Perhaps these changes at least account for a greater ability these days to articulate the problem.
There may also be external reasons. Has the task of leadership changed? What about recent structural changes in business? In today's flat organizations of complex, dispersed authority, there is a need for leadership at all levels, from customers and suppliers up (or across) through each team and group to the senior executive level. The demands of leadership arise in many guises, not always clearly signaled by job title or official status in an organization. A senior "analyst" discovers that her position involves encouraging other analysts to do their best work just as much as it does applying her own technical skills. A senior "graphic artist" finds that he is more often attempting to inspire good work in outsource artists than he is in creating images of his own. At all levels, individuals can and do become leaders by default.
We believe that this is one key factor: In all kinds of organizations, large and small, private and public, managers and executives often drift into leadership positions inappropriate to their values, nature, or abilities. Initially excited about new opportunities for leadership, executives often soon discover themselves in a new position in which they feel mismatched or unprepared. The thrill of advancement and the seductiveness of power have carried them along the fast track to unexpected and sometimes less fulfilling destinations.
Other executives have found themselves in uneasy leadership positions because of someone else's dream for them-perhaps that of a spouse or parents. Still other executives find themselves dissatisfied because they are underchallenged: their talents and risumis clearly qualify them for senior responsibilities that they haven't presumed to seek and that have somehow not drifted their way.
Whether underqualified, underchallenged, or in some other way miscast, many executives today feel out of place or misaligned with regard to the leadership demands and possibilities inherent in their current roles. We believe that these people would benefit by choosing more consciously the best times and places to assert themselves as leaders. We think that they should also spend some time asking how valuable the rewards of leadership are in their lives.
A Blind Spot
In 1998, seeking a better understanding of this problem, we conducted focused interviews to gather perspectives from thirty-two managers who had recently completed executive development programs. (See Appendix A for interview questions.) The interviews revealed that many of them had drifted into or away from leadership roles without conducting much of a conscious, guided evaluation of themselves as leaders. This was somewhat puzzling, considering that the programs that our interviewees attended were designed for people who wanted to improve their practice of leadership through extensive feedback and increased self-awareness. The individuals were thus a self-selected sample of managers willingly engaged in sometimes difficult self-exploration. Yet even in this group, leadership roles had been attained very often mainly through drift.
For example, we asked our interviewees, "Have you thought about a life plan around leadership? Was leadership a conscious decision?" In a few cases, the answers were yes; the individuals had indeed given much thought to themselves in leadership roles. The ones who had done this work seemed to us more self-assured. Some had chosen to move to the next level, and one or two were content to end their careers in their present jobs. In either case, they stood on solid ground.
For the most part, however, our respondents were stumped. They admitted that they had not given leadership per se the same consideration they had once given their technical specialties.
"Well, I guess not," said one manager. "I don't even give it a second thought. You know, it's like you just try to get through each day and do the best you can."
Another admitted that he "fell into" his position. Another told us, "If I start getting crazy, that would help me make a decision. You know, if my life started spiraling out of control."
Overall, it confirmed our idea that there were few managers who had actively sought or were truly comfortable in their identities as leaders. We were struck by how rare it is for people in leadership positions today to have thought to any great extent about their careers as essentially careers in leadership. We were also concerned by how many interviewees were asking, "Is assuming the leadership role worth the effort?"
So we'd like to pose a few starting questions:
How much of your life today is about leadership?
Do you see yourself as a leader?
How comfortable do you feel in that identity?
Did you actually choose to become a leader?
Would you like to be more (or less) of a leader?
Do the benefits of leadership outweigh the costs?
The Problem of Drift
Many highly capable individuals have drifted into leadership roles. Organizational currents carry them upward, so that they arrive at leadership without ever having taken charge of their choices. A gap then arises between who they are as people and who they are as leaders.
Sometimes drift combines with a follower's frame of mind, as reflected by one executive we interviewed:
The gentleman whose job I took two years ago at my current site-this is the
second job I've followed him into. I took his last job, and I took this job when
he left. We have this little parade going. [As for my next move,] I guess I'll just
wait and see. That's really all I can do because the next job I really want was
just taken over by someone recently; now that department is going through
a major overhaul, and it'll probably be a good two or three years before she
moves on and that job becomes open. She would be an ideal person to follow.
She's a trailblazer in our organization. I want to be visibly aligned with her.
In other cases, the drift seems to be part of a general desire to "advance" in the organization, but the purpose behind the advance is unclear. One associate director with about twelve years' experience in business told us:
I've been with [a large pharmaceutical firm] since college and have worked
in several divisions with increasing responsibility. I got grounded in some
HR, had roles as compensation and benefits analysts, and then got a generalist
opportunity as an HR rep supporting one of our medical device businesses,
and from there was promoted to associate manager and then was
given an opportunity again as a generalist supporting our logistics. When we
closed down some facilities and opened new ones, I had responsibility for
that. Once that was done, I had gotten promoted to a manager position. I
worked as a manager for a few years, took on additional responsibility for
staffing, ... then took on a role in productivity initiatives in our global
group, ... was the manager supporting that group, and then was promoted
again [into the] same kind of role.
When asked how she knew she was ready for the next opportunity, she replied:
It's usually when I'm bored. I'm into a routine, doing the same things, ... not
feeling challenged. You know, you tend to lose focus, you tend to procrastinate
a little bit. That means it's time for me to move, time to start looking.
[But] for the most part, I was not the driver. I was always [being promoted by
supervisors or bidding on openings].... Just this past month, my new boss
came looking for me. I wasn't out looking for a job. It was a lateral move,
again at the associate director level. I've been jumping around, you know.
One interviewee from an accounting background looked back on his career and saw status as a driving pattern:
I've always felt I've been chasing titles. When I first started off in my business
career, I was in a CPA firm. The highest level you could achieve was partner,
so I was shooting for partner. After three and a half years, that goal did not
seem attainable because the environment was static, [and] the economy wasn't
growing. I'd have to wait for a partner to die. So I looked around to find the
biggest and best [other] title, and CFO became the goal. I don't think I ever
thought of leadership in terms of concern about other people. I thought
they were all concerned about getting the titles, too.
Often the basic problem is that an executive position turns out to be primarily a position of leadership, rather than of the kinds of technical skills that played a determining role in elevating an individual into the position. Yet the personal implications of this difference may not be acknowledged. The result, quite often, is that even successful managers and executives grow uncertain. This causes a draining loss of effectiveness and a corresponding loss of commitment to career and organization.
The problem is real. Failing to address it can be destructive not only to yourself but also to your family, your organization, and your co-workers. It is a waste of your good talent, energies, and company resources if you are leading by rote, all the while experiencing an indefinable malaise that stands in the way of full commitment and fulfillment.
Oddly, however, the problem is still largely overlooked by organizations. True, "leadership" in general is a hot topic, and rightly so, discussed and promoted in a flood of journals, books, and training programs that has never been greater. At least one American university offers leadership as an undergraduate major, with courses in motivation, ethics, and systems thinking. Yet leadership is rarely perceived as a calling unto itself, a lifelong vocation as demanding as one's technical specialty.
This aspect of leadership is also overlooked by individuals. At some young moment in your life, you were probably urged to select and develop some area of technical knowledge, but you were probably never urged to select and develop leadership as a special skill or to decide specifically how leadership would fit into your life.
Not until they are in their thirties or forties do many managers confront the issue. By then, they have already made career decisions whose implications they can begin to understand only by sifting through mounds of personal feelings and information, much of it emotional, hazy, incomplete, and even contradictory. And no one offers a system or program through which to sort it out. Meanwhile the pressure and temptation to step into even higher levels of leadership are intense: the pay, the power, the perks.
The failure to weigh the rewards and costs and determine how leadership integrates
with all aspects of life presents substantial perils. These affect not only the
individual facing the choice but also the people the individual leads. With leadership
comes tremendous responsibility for others. Poor decisions and poor fit can
severely and negatively affect individuals who look to their leaders for answers.