Why Leadership is Not that Good for your Career

leader or bossNowadays, corporate life is no longer as simple as it was before. First, we had a boss, who had employees. The boss told the employees what their tasks were, and they executed the work – a simple, straightforward approach. But now things have changed; the importance of employee motivation has finally been recognized, and team members are expected to work closely together. As a result, managers were convinced to be leaders, and not bosses anymore.

The boss turned out to be the evil villain of the story. Nobody wants to have a boss or – for god’s sake! – to become one. Being a leader is great; you work with people who deeply respect you, you feel good about yourself, you are some kind of superhero. But, is being a leader good for your career?

  • A leader looks downstairs, the boss upstairs
    A leader sees the satisfaction of his team as the key to success. Since a motivated team has a better performance, the leader will spend a high amount of time trying to make his team feel good, empowered and recognized. The boss, in turn, might care more or less about his employees; his priority is clearly to cause a positive impression at his superiors. Consequently, who is closer to being promoted? Surely the boss! His superiors might promote or recommend him for a higher position, while his team is unlikely able to influence such a decision. Have you ever seen a team going to the streets to claim their leader’s rights? If you have seen it, you probably won’t see it twice.
  • A leader delegates, the boss concentrates
    The leader sees himself as part of the team and shares his responsibilities, avoiding monopolizing information. He is confident about his team; his employees have deep knowledge about the project, and he can always rely on someone to substitute him, if needed. The boss, on the other hand, usually executes important tasks by himself and everything falls apart when he is out of reach.
    One day the company is facing bankruptcy or a department must be shut down. Unlikely? Come on, financial crises are expected to happen every five to seven years; it is part of the game. Considering that the leader has a much higher paycheck than his subordinates and his staff has many times substituted him, who gets fired? The leader, obviously. The boss might lose his team, but he will never lose his paycheck.
  • A leader cares about potentials, a boss cares about facts
    The new leadership trend is to discover the potential of your staff and help them to overcome themselves. Maybe it means that you have an employee with great unused talent and you are thrilled about polishing this undiscovered jewel, making him stick to the company; however, it is more likely that it means you have some low-average employee that could do a better job. The boss does not care much about low-performance employees and instead of trying to spend time making one a brighter person, he might just get rid of him and hire the right one. It might sound heartless, but it is not without reason that charity is non-profit.

Now you probably are thinking, “Wait, but the leader’s employees perform better!.” Yes, you have a valid point here. The team managed by a leader, with motivated, engaged people, who share knowledge and trust each other probably lead to better outcomes. But the question is:  who cares?

Nobody does.  Well, maybe someone does care about your performance as manager, but not that much. We all love to talk about results, but we rarely make an effort to measure it. If you are responsible for an assembly line or a sales team, you probably have some hard numbers to describe your achievements, but if you lead an engineering team, chances are that nobody actually knows if you deliver a good work or not.

Having said that, as a leader you care about outcomes and try to get the best of your team, but, unfortunately, the CEO probably has no idea what you are doing. Or even your immediate superior. Your team might implement a well-needed refactoring on the framework and properly validate the changes, while your superiors are only complaining about the time you need to release. Or you might build a horrible application as an abominable collection of bugs and be praised about your team’s record developing time.

The bitter moral of the story: do not overestimate leadership! It might be good for your company, but it does not mean it is good for you.

Sounds crazy? Welcome to the Insanity Corp.

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9 thoughts on “Why Leadership is Not that Good for your Career

  1. Yeah! Forget all that corporate brainwashing. The only rationale why they train you to be transparent and replaceable is… exactly, you get it!

    Reminds me of my favorite character from Terry Pratchett’s diskworld novels: Lord Vetinary. Vetinari is a benevolent dictator, firmly in control, who made sure that life without him would be just a bit more miseable than it is with him. He cares for his subjects and they respect him. But Vetinari would never, ever, do team building events, he prefers to remind people of „the Consequences“. He just can’t „look upstairs“ any more to get promoted in his career because, well, he already made it to the top :-)

  2. This is an outstanding article. As much as it pains me to admit it, those who take credit and take charge “do” tend to advance quicker and be treated with more respect by senior managers. Perhaps it boils down to your personal goals. If your goal is to be the boss with the bigger paycheck, then moving towards the boss side of the continuum is probably the best bet for you. If, however, your personal motivation is respect from your peers and a better product, then leadership should be the focus. Experience has shown me that people do lie on a continuum between the tyrannical boss and the delegating leader. My personal model has changed over the years, yet always been somewhere between the two extremes. I find that now that I’m older and have a more steady income independent of my job, I tend to focus more on leadership and the growth of those who will one day have to make the choice for themselves. The other observation I have made is that those at the top tend to promote those most like themselves…and for those who want to fast-track themselves to the top: model yourself after those above you and make sure your actions are sufficiently visible so they notice how you’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.

  3. Who’s to say a boss can’t embody leadership qualities? The problem with the article is making the distinction between a leader and a boss, as if a good leader can’t be the boss. Leadership is quality that anyone can possess that prides themselves on being effective. There is a difference between a leader and someone in charge. You can put anyone in charge but is that truly effective for the employees and the company as a whole. If a company truly wants effective bosses, managers, directors, CEO’s, etc., they should look into hiring people with effective leadership qualities.

  4. Great article,
    I took leadership training as a teenager , went to a prep school during my junior high years, Outward Bound School after high school, many summers spent team building, non-violence training, LGBTQ sensitivity training, Ethnic studies, Teacher Effectiveness Training ™ and yet I have been a servant to others much of my career path.
    The only time I was really empowered was when I ran a gardening business-as a self-employed person. The businesses I have worked for since I became sober have treated me as less-than, rather than as an equal. I was told by an acquaintance that I intimidate others when I attempt to communicate with them.
    True Leadership is concerned with the Bottom Line, results and ROI, but is coupled with True Concern for others. Sometimes a true leader sacrifices his or her career so others may succeed. A mere Boss doesn’t give you a second thought, just as long as they can milk your talents and then claim them as their own. It is said in business school that one of the founders of Hewlett Packard would show up for work in their early manufacturing facilities in coveralls as a new-hire janitor or warehouse person just to gauge the employees’s job satisfaction. He later is to have said that ” when the janitor is happy, Hewlett- Packard is happy”. I think that true leadership expresses itself as more sacrificial than Bossism, and that Irony has great stress-relief potential.

  5. Interesting article – I think. I look at things a bit differently – in my business and those I consult with the boss is the leader. Sure we are all looking for employees that will deliver the goods on time, but make no mistake, they want a return their investment of sweat. Quid pro quo. The difference I see between a leader and a boss is a leader becomes part of the success and a boss relishes in the success alone – you know, they went that extra mile to do things alone to get things done and will take full credit. Would a leader do that? Of course, but they just might ask for help and share the success. The way you describe the difference between a leader and a boss seems to imply that a leader is respected and a boss isn’t. I happen to like being respected. A great boss should be a great leader and a great leader should be a great boss and that’s what I believe those at the top are looking for – not one or the other. Like everything else, life and work is what you make it.

    1. Diane, Thank you for your thoughts! Perhaps it was not that clear in the article, but I think the core of the discussion is really what you describe: bosses go that extra mile to take full credit. Bosses put much more effort into self promotion while leaders are more committed to getting work done, together with the team. A mix of both is of course the best way to follow, it is important to develop leadership, but without naivety: leadership might open doors, but business is much more complex than that.

  6. Thank you …

    Inspiring article …

    1.) You say: “The team managed by a leader, with motivated, engaged people, who share knowledge and trust each other may lead to better outcomes. But the question is: who cares?”

    Leadership is NEVER about outcomes … leadership is about people and helping them to succeed! Giving them #trust and support…

    2.) You say: “Being a leader is nice. You work with people who deeply respect you, you feel good about yourself, you are a kind of superhero.”

    A leader is certainly NO superhero!

    3.) You say: “Who is closer to being promoted? The boss, for sure! ”

    Is good promotion so essential?

    Your article sounds as if you do not take leadership very seriously!

    May I ask you something:
    Do you feel respect for other people?

    You say: “Forget the leadership fairy tale” ..

    I should give up my job at once when reading such an article!

    1. Hello Karin,

      Thank you for your thoughts, I will comment your points in a different order:

      - You say: Your article sounds as if you do not take leadership very seriously!
      I do take leadership very seriously, and I admire true leaders. I’m a little disappointed that you could not get the irony about this article. This article is actually not about leadership; it is about realizing that not everything works as we assume. I do not say that being a “boss” is the best way to work, what I have pointed here is, that leaders sometimes are not recognized as they should. The reason is that they do not concentrate their efforts in promoting themselves, which of course, is a good thing, but sometimes have a negative impact on their careers.

      - Is good promotion so essential?
      Maybe it is not the most important thing in life, but it is an important part of a career.

      - Leadership is NEVER about outcomes
      Leadership is all about outcomes! This is the essential difference between coaching and leading. Coaching is about helping people to succeed; leading is about inspiring others to pursue our vision or our goal. It might involve helping others to succeed, but this is definitely not the key. What value brings a leader to a company if all his employees feel happy and successful, but as a team they achieve nothing? For good or bad, business is about money and money you only earn with outcomes.

      Karin, please read the article again and let some space for irony. We both value leadership, take a look again!

  7. I would never be able to be a boss. Being a leader provides me great personal satisfaction. It also provides you with a know-how which makes you succeed in other parts of your life, like being a dad, husband, friend. Being a leader provides you happiness which can lead to a promotion, but if not, you still have the happiness.

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