It is okay if you don’t want to be a leader.

A few years ago, “every one of us a leader” was the motto of the annual Values Day at McKinsey[1]. Of course, the concept behind this phrase raises some practical questions of internal organisation (which might be the reason why it was only chosen for a day)[2]. More importantly, however, these days, the idea expressed here seems to be omnipresent in books, articles, blogs, and titbits of advice on social media platforms that deal with questions of organisational or personal development aka “Leadership”. The vast amount of what is written there implies that everyone wants to (and indeed should be) be a leader – and then proceeds to explain how to become one, or, if you are already there, how to become an even better leader (often, of course, at the same time more or less subtly marketing the respective author’s leadership methods, medicines, and magical tricks)[3].

Now, there’s no question that in many situations and settings it is helpful if someone – explicitly or implicitly – leads others in where they go or what they do. Imagine an orchestra playing without a conductor, climbing Mount Everest without a sherpa, a swimming class without an instructor, a plane flying without a pilot[4]. And of course we want the conductor, the sherpa, the instructor, and the pilot to be really good at what they do. But: We want them to be really good conductors, sherpas, instructors, or pilots, and while there might arguably be additional joy, adventure, effectiveness of learning, or swiftness of travel in it for us if they’re the very best of their profession (in case this is even measurable), first and foremost we want them to just do well what they’re doing. In addition, there are plenty of professions out there where leading others in where they go or what they do is not relevant at all, such as chimney sweeps, tightrope dancers[5], or hermits. All these – as well as many others – might work hard to help, entertain, or enlighten others – but they do not lead them[6].

Also, I’ve yet to meet the child that, when asked what it wants to be when it’s grown up, answers: “I want to be a leader”. Fortunately, the aspiring firemen and policewomen,doctors and nurses, cooks, ballet dancers, and garbage collectors are still standing strong[7]. Whence, then, the obsession with leadership that keeps us awake at night worrying about what we need to do (or stop) to become (or be) a leader? Assuming this is more than just the result of a highly successful marketing trick employed by leadership experts wanting to make sure that the number of people aspiring to become leaders never decreases, so they – the experts – will remain in business: What is the appeal of becoming (or dreaming of being) a leader?

Let me be bold: Despite all meritorious talk about concepts like “Servant Leadership”[8] or “Leadership Without Easy Answers”[9], what most of us associate with being a leader is (still) being at the top (and therefore above others), having or achieving more than others (variably measured in money, Elo points, real or virtual friends and followers, or in Nobel prizes and Oscars), being happy (because of success, possessions, or influence to make things go our way), and being liked, admired, respected, or (at least) feared. And who, honestly, wouldn’t like at least a bit (if not a lot) of all this? There you go. And when you have (some of) it, wouldn’t you like to keep it as much as possible? There you go again. Exacerbated by loss aversion.

Of course, there are also the likes of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, or Pocahontas[10] who display qualities like humility, compassion, courage, or loyalty. But let’s be honest: When we talk about how impressive they are and how wonderful it would be if we could emulate their deeds, do we really imagine being as humble, compassionate, courageous, or loyal without anyone noticing us, without getting any satisfaction from it, without influencing others, and without being (put) on some kind of pedestal? In other words: How many of us would dare to adopt the views and actions that are praised as the epitomes of leadership when talking about the amazing human beings just mentioned if in exchange we got no fame, no gain, no happiness, and no compliments? There you go. Sorry about this.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not at all advocating a martyrdom approach to leadership (or life in general). Insignificance, loss, pain, and shitstorms are definitely not something that anyone should strive for, and also being ignored, failing, being hurt, or being abused are not to be mistaken as signs that someone is doing the right thing (whatever that means[11]). In fact, for good psychological reasons, some of our most elaborate (individual and cultural) mental constructs serve as protection against exactly those experiences, and for many of us it takes lifetimes to unwrap the layers of assumptions that make up these mental constructs. But: Hoping that becoming (or being) a leader will shield us from these experiences and instead bathe us in golden light rays of boundless power, limitless wealth, eternal bliss, and universal love is naive. To say the least. In reality, many powerful and influential people in heavily exposed positions know very well how much more dependent, deprived, worried, and alone they are exactly because of where they are.

So, it’s okay if you don’t want to be a leader. Regardless of whether, right now, you are leading a global corporation, a soccer team, a network of volunteers, or a family life. Just don’t use this as an excuse to not do what you need to do in your current position, role, or profession: Work with your orchestra, get the party up the mountain, teach the kids, fly the plane. Clean the chimneys, dance on the tightrope, sit in the cave. If you want a break, think about what you want to be in the way children do – dream, play, and do not let reality get in your way. Then get back to what you need to do, and don’t expect glory, paybacks, excitement, or recognition. If you get them, smile, say “Thank you”, and move on. Don’t get hung up on not being seen, not getting rewarded, not feeling inspired, or not being acknowledged. If this happens to you, shrug your shoulders, say nothing, and move on. Nobody said it was easy to not be a leader.

Good luck!


[1] McKinsey & Company, Inc. is a global consultancy that until recently (at least in Germany) also used the claim “Building Global Leaders” in its recruiting campaigns, see the examples here: https://www.heimat-berlin.com/arbeiten/branchen/Corporate%20Image [retrieved April 10, 2015]. Disclosure: I worked with McKinsey from 2001 until 2013. BACK TO TEXT

[2] For a timeless treatment of practical questions around leadership, see George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945) and the homonymous movie by John Halas and Joy Batchelor (1954). This is the source for the famous phrase. “All humans are leaders, but some are more leaders than others”. Or something like this. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Barbara Kellerman gives insightful summaries on the history of leadership as a discipline in “The End of Leadership” (2012), preceded by her analysis of different types of followers in “Followership” (2008). BACK TO TEXT

[4] This example, of course, has a particular significance given the recent plane crash in the French Alps – on this, see my earlier blog post here. BACK TO TEXT

[5] As in the beautiful documentary “The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia” by Inna Sahakyan and Arman Yeritsyan (2009) – for a sneak preview see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPZkdi7aBis [retrieved April 10, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] One part of the issue discussed here results from a common confusion between “leading” in the (intransitive) sense of being best in a ranking (e.g., the leading player in a tournament) and in the (transitive) sense of leading others (e.g., someone leading a horse). Assuming that the skills that support the former have something to do with the latter, results in the type of leadership consulting where “leading” mountaineers, tennis players, and race drivers are invited to convey their leadership experiences to people leading global (for profit or not for profit) organisations, or (larger or smaller) teams. I leave it to you to continue this line of thought. BACK TO TEXT

[7] For the German speaking readers: I’m pretty sure there’s a draft for “Conni lernt Leadership” in somebody’s drawer. She’ll want to be a leader because her friend Simon already is a leader. She’ll then go out to buy the appropriate leadership gear with her mum, attend a leadership training course, immediately attract a huge amount of followers among her fellow leadership students, and a few weeks later be featured on the global Forbes “10 under 10” list. Let’s hope that drawer is never opened.. BACK TO TEXT

[8] As coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, first in his article “The Servant as A Leader” (sic!) 1970, then as the title of his book “Servant Leadership” (1977). BACK TO TEXT

[9] Ron Heifetz’ classic (1998) that introduced the idea of “Adaptive Leadership”. BACK TO TEXT

[10] My main reason for mentioning her is that it allows me to post a link to one of my favourite Neil Young songs – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTg5aybxbzc [retrieved April 10, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Unfortunately, some leadership thinking around strengths, finding one’s true vocation, positive thinking, and similar ideas comes close to implying there is a “right thing” to do and that setbacks or unpleasant experiences are nothing but signs that we haven’t quite tried hard enough. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it isn’t. Unless you can tell the difference, you shouldn’t subscribe to any such philosophy. BACK TO TEXT

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