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A Desire to Lead?


A Desire to Lead?

By John Grubbs

I have had my suspicions now for quite a while.  I knew something was not quite right when it came to leadership positions in most organizations.  After all, how could there be so few excellent supervisors?  How many followers would consider current supervisors to be actual leaders?  I have been puzzled by the epidemic of bad leadership and it exists at all levels.  Freshly minted supervisors all the way up to seasoned executives are all struggling to earn the title of leader from their followers.

Looking at some historical context, bad supervisors have been around since the beginning.  There are countless examples such as the fictional character, Ebenezer Scrooge and the more contemporary version of a bad boss, Montgomery Burns from “The Simpsons”.  While certainly exaggerated for entertainment, they are rooted in the reality of the writer and came from real painful experiences locked in someone’s mind.

In reality, what is the possible connection among so many underperformers in the workplace?  We send them to workshops, they read management books, and they see the exaggeration on television.  So where does the failure come from?  When I ask the difficult questions, I seem to get transparent answers.  Do most supervisors dislike the work and stress that it takes to lead others?  Do they dislike the confrontation and worry? Simply put, do most supervisors desire to be a leader at work?

The latent answer is a resounding “No”!  It takes a rare individual indeed to like these activities.  So why take the job?  Reality is rooted in our fundamental need to self-actualize as Maslow has told us.

So let us get this straight.  We are going to leave a job that we might enjoy.  We are going to accept a job we may very well hate.  And, we will be asked to perform activities that we despise.  Why would we do this?  Money and status are the answer.  When really pushed for an honest answer, many supervisors in a hierarchical organization will say they took the job because it was the only way to grow their financial and societal status. In other words, I must take the job and do the things I dislike in order to better myself in life.  Sound crazy?  Overlay that with the fact that most supervisors are not trained at all, and the desire to be a leader becomes very rare.

Even worse, the optimists in this population think they will take the job and eventually learn to like it.  After all, the money is better.  How long does this last?  Even the most optimistic individuals can become cynical over long periods of time.  Insert power (as a supervisor) and the resentment turns into a mean and hateful demeanor.  In other words, the supervisor can become abusive to subordinates because they have the power to do so.  When asked, many of these individuals would gladly go back to the old job if they could still make the same money and grow financially for their family.

The most common mistake when assessing talent at the supervisor level is a disregard for an individual’s desire to lead others.  Why do you want the supervisor position is now replaced by we have decided to offer you a promotion.  Even the word “promotion” makes us feel good.  How many people are going to say “no thank you, I would rather keep doing what I am doing”?  The positive feeling is more about prestige and power than it is about the love of leadership.  It is more about improving our own life than it is about improving the lives of others.  It is more about what I get than how I can serve.

This powerful driver is the force behind the many struggling supervisors and managers in the workplace.  We have been conditioned over time to believe that success at work is climbing the corporate ladder.  If we just want to stay in our current job, we are described as lacking ambition.  In reality most people are not naturally wired to be successful as a supervisor.  And, for those that have the desire, the skills can certainly be learned.  The motivation and desire to truly lead others cannot be faked for very long.