Why We Need to Turn Down the Volume on Leadership

leadership-volumeRecently I’ve had a major change of heart when it comes to leadership.

This change of heart certainly qualifies as a “major” because practically my entire career has been built around leadership.  The first company I helped start was called Smart Leadership. I was a “Leadership Consultant” for a major denomination.  I’ve attended leadership conferences, read leadership books, listened to leadership podcasts and even the first book I wrote had “Leaders” in the title. I’ve coached leaders and put myself out there as a leadership coach.  I’ve quoted and tried to live John Maxwell’s mantra that “everything rises or falls on leadership.”   In other words, I’ve been all in when it comes to leadership.  But now I’m getting out. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not abandoning leadership; I’m just moving it to its proper spot in the order of things.

My conversion away from “leadership first” started a few months ago when I and several other community leaders were discussing what we could do to make our community better.  All of us were singing loud and proud from the “leadership first” songbook.  We said things like, “Our city needs strong leaders,” and “We need to grow leaders in every corner of the community,” and “We should teach leadership in our schools,” and “Our first priority needs to be leadership.”  I was all in, until I wasn’t. In a flash, I wondered, “To what end is all this leadership going to lead?”

It was in that moment I realized something maybe you’ve known all along: leadership is of instrumental value, not intrinsic value.

You see, leadership is valuable, but it’s not valuable in and of itself.  It’s a means, not an end.  It’s a pathway, not a destination.  It’s valuable because it helps us get some other thing that is intrinsically valuable, but it’s not intrinsically valuable.  BTW, if you’re not clear on the difference between intrinsic and instrumental value, check out this short course from Kahn Academy.

Billions of dollars and at least that many hours have been invested developing leaders over the past few decades.  Leadership development is a huge industry and a mega-sized emphasis in pretty much every sector, from FORTUNE 100 companies to denominations and mission agencies, to non-profit and government.  But look around: where is all this leadership getting us?  The things we celebrate in life are not leadership, they are what leadership helps produce.

So let’s celebrate and even promote leadership, but let’s do so only when we are clear what we want leadership to produce. Here are four suggestions for doing that:

  1. Define the good life. Any leader who does not help followers live the good life is leading in the wrong direction.  The good life is not a job, money, free time, etc.  Like leadership, those are all good things, but they are not the intrinsic good that life is about.  Philosophers and religious teachers define the good life as the way a human is meant to live. What’s your definition and description of the good life?
  2. Align mission to the good life. Leaders lead people, often within a movement or an organization.  How does the mission of your movement/organization align to your definition of the good life? Is there alignment?  If not, what needs to change?
  3. Let the intrinsic inspire. As Kouzes and Posner remind us, one of the chief responsibilities of the leader is to “inspire a shared vision.”  From the follower’s point of view, simply being led is not all that inspiring.  Being led so that I have a job for which I get paid is probably less inspiring.  On the other hand, being led to change the world, improve my community, or bring about good is very inspiring.  How well do you inspire by describing how your organization/movement contributes to the good life?
  4. Focus on character. Leadership is not just an outside job (“Where are we going and what are we accomplishing?”), it’s also an inside job that creates great change and even transformation within the leader.  To lead well requires a change of character: what kind of person the leader is, not just what he can do.  How’s your character?  What character adjustments need to be made so you are living the mission, not just leading others toward it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Why We Need to Turn Down the Volume on Leadership

  1. Hi Chad,
    You have written a thought provoking article that shakes the zombie out of the title of Leadership! I concur with your message and it has prompted me to reassess my intrinsic value of leadership, specifically mine. What I found most striking was your final comment: What character adjustments need to be made so you are living the mission, not just leading others toward it? This is a game changer! Thank you!

  2. This is a profound post in that in today’s world we are always talking about “leading into tomorrow”. However I feel that many of us (both professionally and personally) do not take the time to take stock in exactly where we are to start that journey. As a student and instructor of leadership, we spend so much time trying to show others how to have a vision, plant a mission, always looking out for those you lead…all this with out truly taking a look at where we start. We are always shooting for the finish line without asking “Is this the race I should really be running?”
    The question of character here plays a large part. We can all take on tasks and projects because they will benefit us in our profession world, but at what price personally?

  3. Chad,
    This is music to my ears. For many years I’ve been coaching and mentoring senior leaders and when I ask what outcome they are looking for the answer is often “to make this a great place in which to work”. Well if that is all leadership is about they may as well send people home to spend time with their families – at least that’s a good social outcome! I’ve encouraged them to think about being a servant leader – what that looks like and sounds like and what a servant leader seeks for the people she/he serves.
    I am writing a leadership program (with some colleagues) called Leading from the Heart and it has four key themes:
    Embedding forgiveness
    Driving out fear
    Nurturing colleagues so they can be the best they can be.
    Your future already exists within your enterprise it just needs to be allowed to grow.
    When it’s finished I’d be very happy to share it with you.

    • Geoff,
      Sounds like a great program. I’d love to take a look once it’s ready.
      Thanks for the comments.
      Chad

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