Leadership is Not for Everyone…and That’s Okay


Something I learned early in my executive coaching career is that management and leadership are not for everyone. Sometimes people are thrust into leadership roles without the option to decline, only to discover it’s not what they want to do. In truth, leadership is extremely difficult work, but it has become so lionized in our culture that often it’s not acceptable for someone to say they don’t want to lead or be a leader. Here are three valid, compelling reasons someone may not want to pursue leadership roles.

Leadership requires regularly making complex decisions with far-reaching consequences for the good of the organization. Being a leader demands strong judgement, critical thinking, and decision-making skills. Sometimes, in order to ensure the survival of an organization, leaders must make difficult decisions that will negatively impact lots of people. Making these kinds of decisions can be painful and uncomfortable, yet they are common-place in the business world. I’ve worked with dozens of people who simply don’t want to deal with the pressures and repercussions of making those kinds of calls.

Leadership requires strong, highly honed interpersonal skills to adroitly navigate conflict and other challenging communications. A person serving in a leadership role has to be a “people-person,” at least situationally. The popular leadership book Good to Great explains that successful leaders are not necessarily highly charismatic, but they do create a strong sense of direction among those they work with through interpersonal connectedness. Accomplishing this can be especially challenging for introverted people, for whom social interaction can be draining. It’s not that they can’t do it—in fact many introverts have excellent interpersonal skills—but that doesn’t change the fact that some people don’t want the interpersonal responsibility that comes with leadership.

Many folks who are in so-called “left-brained jobs,” such as accounting, finance, and technology, find the interpersonal components essential to 21st century leadership to be particularly challenging. It is not uncommon in the business world for entrepreneurs who start up and grow a company to discover that 21st century leadership is not their best skill set, which leads them to hire a CEO (e.g., Steve Jobs hired John Scully at Apple, Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Eric Schmidt at Google). The founder often retains a leadership position as Chief Technology Officer or Chief Development Officer, targeting those skills and responsibilities they find more fulfilling.

I once worked with a CFO whose boss asked him to strengthen his relationships with the other members of the leadership team by making time to engage with his colleagues. Unfortunately, he viewed the task as an impingement on his daily to-do list, often saying: “It just doesn’t make sense to spend time on Monday mornings going around the office checking in with everyone to see how their weekend went.”

In this case, the interpersonal component was not a skill the CFO possessed or wanted to develop. He truly wanted to do his work and go home, which was ironic because away from work he appeared kind, caring deeply for his friends and family. He just couldn’t make the transition to seeing how strong relationships and caring about those he would lead was also a necessary item on his to-do list; thus leadership was not a good fit for him.

Leadership requires courage and fortitude to implement plans, have uncomfortable conversations, and sometimes negatively impact people we personally care about. Sometimes the decisions leaders must make are not in favor of people they’ve helped and invested in. An example of this situation occurs when an employee’s life course changes and is no longer congruent with the organization’s course.

I refer to this as The Kool-Aid Conversation, as in saying to a colleague, “You don’t seem to like our flavor of Kool-Aid anymore.” When an employee no longer seems to agree with the organization’s philosophical direction, including strategies, tactics, or values, it doesn’t make her a bad person, but we do each other a big disservice if we don’t talk about it. At some point, it’s time to find some other place inside the organization that is a better fit with her current motivations and values or else invite her to leave.

Ultimately, leading others strongly correlates with caring for them and helping them grow. The “old school” command-and-control, paramilitary approach to leading doesn’t work well in the 21st century workplace. Leaders are far more successful when they take the time to understand what motivates people, and then seek alignment between individual and organizational goals.

This point naturally leads us full circle, in that as executives who are tapping others for leadership positions, we need to be able to accept when someone says, “This is not for me”—both for the sake of the would-be leader and the employees he or she would lead. There is nothing shameful about not wanting to lead, and it does not make someone a less worthy colleague or employee. We have a moral and ethical obligation to not force those to lead who don’t want to, or for whom leadership is not a good fit.