Top 3 Reasons NOT to WANT to Be a Leader

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“Vanity… Definitely, my favorite sin.” This is the line spoken by Al Pacino in the movie The Devil’s Advocate right after Keanu Reeves’ character starts to believe he is truly an undefeatable attorney. This scene had a profound impact on me. I have always felt that vanity, including all of its different forms (conceit, arrogance, delusion of grandeur, etc.), is the downfall of most people. It has certainly been mine on several occasions and that of most of the people I know. Interestingly, this is both a biblical statement (1 Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 4:30, Matthew 6:1-7, etc.) and a well-studied psychological dynamic (Alfred Adler’s book Understanding Human Nature, Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, etc.)

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In this regard, the full title of this post should be, Top 3 Reasons NOT to WANT to Be a Leader Just for the Perks.

Hundreds of times during my academic and professional career, I have heard countless youngsters and adults alike say, “I want to be a leader”, when answering the question, “What do you want to be?” I know, for a fact, most of them have not become leaders, and, most likely, never will. Why? It is very simple. When someone, having no specific context or goal in mind, says, “I want to be a leader”, all he or she really wants is the spotlight, the fame, the recognition, the power. Actually, they had better go into showbiz. There, they may actually achieve the visibility they crave, but they will never become true leaders. Leadership is way beyond their reach, at least while they continue to think that way.

Leadership should not be a goal in itself. Leadership is the potential byproduct of passionately pursuing a goal of positive collective impact. When a group of people witnesses a particular person passionately pursing a goal that incorporates the group’s long held aspirations and long awaited vindications, the leadership phenomenon will start to occur as a catalyst for the whole group to achieve their goals. This, of course, bestows a newfound power upon the rising leader, who will then have to choose whether to succumb to the seductive, vane feelings that come with social recognition or to remain faithful to his/her initial goals and the loyalties that ensued along the way.

In this regard, based on the foregoing, here are the top 3 reasons NOT to WANT to be a leader just for the perks:

1)      Leadership, in its highest form, is a positive byproduct of humility, courage, and passion for a specific goal of positive collective impact, be it in business, politics, volunteerism, etc. Leadership must never be the primary objective. When it is, basic psychology tells us that the real quest is for something else. It is like placing the chariot before the horses—it just does not work.

2)      People who just want to be leaders for the spotlight, the fame, the recognition, or the power learn to be deceitful in order to get their own way. They will likely devise a narrative professing a fake mission of positive collective impact. Sometimes, such a lie can easily be unveiled by looking into their history. Power hungry individuals tend to leave a trail of deceit, treason, and mediocrity. Others, however, are better at hiding their true intentions by leaving a trail of apparent impeccability. These are the most dangerous as, when they decide to strike, they will do so in a swift move wreaking havoc.

3)      True leadership is earned, not taken. Individual ambition is not the path to true leadership. Passion to serve others, on the contrary, is at the core of true leadership. Therefore, whether you want to be a leader or not, it will be irrelevant in the long term. The people around you will make that decision, not you. Your job is to work hard and fight for something others consider worth fighting for. The rest will follow its natural course. Your true intentions will sooner or later be revealed.

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As you read this post, you may wonder whether people like Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-il, or Fidel Castro were true leaders. The one and only answer is an absolute NO. Whenever the people around a so-called leader choose not to speak their minds and to repress their will out of fear of being killed, imprisoned, exiled, or subjected to some other form of abuse, we are talking about coercion, not leadership. The same is true in business, family, religion, etc. As I said before, leadership is earned, not taken. Leadership is built based on trust, not imposed based on fear. No dictator is a leader, no despotic boss is a leader, no abusive parent is a leader.

Every organization wanting to benefit from real leadership must forgo “leadership” as a standalone slogan. Rather, they should develop a culture based on service, hard work, excellence, innovation, respect, and zero tolerance to mediocrity. Only in such an environment can true examples of leadership flourish, contributing to the organic evolution of the organization towards better performance and climate.

What Do You Think?

What is leadership to you? What would Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other people of that caliber have thought of this post? Similarly, what would Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs have thought of what is written here? Do you want to be a leader? If so, why?

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