Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Leadership and Solitude: A response

Joey kindly sent me this link from the American Scholar and I've thought about it a bit in the past few days after circulating it with some friends. Some dissected it argumentatively (nicely done, Eden) or offered practical wisdom of uninterrupted time (thanks Bouchard, I think that's actually something I'd like to incorporate into my daily life - see this also: Why Work Doesn't Happen at Work.)

I can't disagree with Eden that the author does put up strawmen and mow them down because it's popular to undermine bureaucracy and social media. And I don't disagree with those who find it to be a refreshing call to reflection which is hardly ever voiced with a full-throated bellow. I will however, explore a bit the most insightful part of the talk to me: the dissection of leadership and achievement.

Let's look for a moment at the progression of leadership in organizations and the incentives surrounding leadership.

By and large, leaders are brought up through organizations. Let's create a basic hypothetical situation. Imagine Pete. Pete joins the sales organization of Standard Widgets Corp. (SW). He does well and gets promoted. He increases his capability to sell and recieves a larger sales territory. Eventually, he manages other sales people. Along the way, he hones his "leadership" skills on-the-job and through some sort of corporate program. This is a pretty standard model for advancement - you do well and you move up. But, does this really mean Pete is good at leading? Not necessarily. Of course, it's very likely, even probable that Pete is a good leader. But that's precisely the point, Pete doesn't rise through the organization because of his ability to lead. He rises because he's a high achiever.

Incentive structures match this notion of high achievement = skill -> leadership = excellence. The pay difference between "leadership" or "executive" positions compared to senior technical people is large and in some cases exorbitant. The top of the pyramid is a CEO position or other leadership/management type position. We hold "leaders" in esteem, publicly.

This is all fine, I guess I just take issue with the process. With the exception of end-to-end leadership development programs which start from early career levels we're using achievement as a proxy for leadership selection. Which is fine, it just seems like a whiff because we ought to be selecting leaders based on their potential, desire or aptitude for leadership. Or, if leadership is a universally needed quality, we should be making leadership at the core of an organization's DNA and not separating people based on their leadership potential.

In any case, I'm circling the point. This is what I want to suggest. In the US (perhaps elsewhere, I haven't really thought about international implications) we use achievement as a pre-requisite and sometimes as a proxy for leadership. This is incorrect and dangerous.

First the obvious, it's incorrect. I suppose it's not supremely obvious but I don't really want to spend time defending this assumption. I'll leave it at this, posing it as a question. How can leadership and achievement be synonymous unless achievement in leadership is what one is looking at? Why would achievement in something like sales or research (basically anything other than leadership) translate to leadership success?

[As I've attempted to show above, we select leaders from the pool of high achievers, not directly from the pool of capable leaders...achievement is a proxy it seems].

It's dangerous, in my opinion, because there are two axioms which doesn't necessarily vibe with eachother:

1. Leadership is for doing the right thing (i.e. we value leaders because they are necessary to guide groups to do the right thing)
2. Incentives for achievement don't always align with incentives for doing the right thing.
Therefore - incentives for achievement don't always align with leadership.

Simple, yes. But, can you imagine if leaders don't understand the distinction between leadership and achievement. We're risking that ethics, morality and principle be superceded by achievement. Achievement need not be benign (e.g. credit default swaps and increased profits at the cost of emissions. The social sector isn't's not impossible for not-for-profits to go after grant money even though it doesn't make the most impact in the community, etc.).

In any case, I have to run to hang out with friends (woot, slows bbq!). But the two sentence summary is:

The distinction between leadership and achievement is an important one because if we, and leaders, don't understand the difference we're setting ourselves us to risk sacrificing doing the right thing for doing what's "highest achieving". This isn't always a bad thing but when doing the right thing contradicts with achievement and we don't do the right thing, we have messy, costly situations.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com