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Does Obsession with Leadership Skills Favour Fake Leaders?

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Laozi, Chinese Philosopher.

People who are too pre-occupied with themselves  make lousy  leaders: They have a hard time motivating and inspiring others because they are  unwilling to acknowledge others’ efforts and accomplishments. History shows that,  when such people do manage to raise to leadership roles,  they  tend to be authoritarian, cause a great deal of damage, and are hostile to criticism.

For this reason, I believe that claiming to be a strong leader (and implicitly claiming credit for the successes of your whole team) is the best way to demonstrate that you aren’t one. So it seems counter-intuitive to me that boasting about one’s own strong leadership skills may help one’s career.

Apparently, it does. According to a recent study from the University of  British Columbia, narcissists do better in job interviews and are more likely to get hired than more modest personalities. So, by extension, when, in the recruitment process, a narcissist insists that he/she is a great leader, interviewers tend to believe those claims, which helps the narcissist land jobs that require leadership skills (which he/she   actually lacks).

I find it surprising how many people claim leadership skills on their resumes.   In 2012, a Forbes magazine article identified “Team Leader” as one of 5 most overused resume phrases. I did my own experiment and searched on LinkedIn for profiles containing the word “Leadership”. I got impressive 830,972 hits in Canada alone  (15M worldwide). In comparison, the word “Accountant” is used in only 122,764 Canadian profiles (2.5M worldwide), “Analyst” in 411,734 (7.35M worldwide), and “Engineer” in 319,525 (12.2M worldwide).

Do we really have 6 leaders for each accountant and 2 for each engineer? I doubt it. Does the economy need so many leaders? Certainly not.

It is obvious that so many people cannot all be self-absorbed narcissists.

Then why are so many people eager to claim being leaders?

When promoting their skills and expertise, people emphasize what they think will sell. In our economy, leadership seems to be It: The most appreciated and best rewarded skill. So people are eager to acquire and claim it.

Society in North America – and, increasingly, around the world – is obsessed with leadership. We live, work, and study in a culture that glorifies leadership, very often at the expense of other skills. In their admission requirements, top universities – including Harvard and Yale – list leadership as one of the top qualities that they require from candidates in any discipline.

You will be hard-pressed nowadays to find a business or a professional association in North America that does not have some sort of a mentorship or (semi) fraternal program geared towards the “leaders of tomorrow”, “emerging leaders”, etc. (I personally find it somewhat presumptuous for anyone to claim that they can  spot  today the leaders of tomorrow. But such programs are incredibly common both among associations and in larger corporations.)

Corporate compensation policies also increasingly reflect a view that the single most important driver of business success is the man or woman at the helm: According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average American CEO earned 272 times more than the average worker in 2012. In other words, today’s corporate boards equate the value of the work an average CEO does to that of 272 average workers. (Note that we are comparing average CEO compensation with average workers compensation.)

The demand for “leaders” does not end at the executive level. Research that we do at Vicinity Jobs shows a steady, unmistakeable trend of increasing hiring demand for positions with job titles suggesting that the candidate must possess leadership skills (jobs for “leaders”, “managers”, “directors”, etc). In 2007, when we first started producing hiring demand analysis, 10.3% of all job postings were for such position. Today, this share stands at almost 14%.

Companies certainly need strong leaders to succeed, but they didn`t always reward them as handsomely as they do today. In 1989, the average CEO received 58.5 times the average worker`s salary. In the high economic growth era of the 60`s, the ratio was as low as 20.

The message is clear. The trend is unmistakeable.  If you want to do well in your career, you better be a “leader”.

How does  the leadership cult  impact the labour market?

When people make career decisions, they chose to focus on developing skills that are in high demand and short supply. To identify what these are, they explore which skills come with the highest degree of compensation and social status. So it is no wonder that, instead of working on acquiring technical, engineering, or accounting skills, many people chose to invest in building up their leadership skills. In turn, this trend has created a whole “leadership training” industry, with a large army of leadership coaches, speakers, and mentors.

Market forces should eventually prevent this trend from going out of hand: If too many people chose to acquire “leadership” skills and too few chose to become engineers, for example, this should lead to an oversupply of leaders and a shortage of engineers. Engineer salaries should go up and those of leaders should go down over time, encouraging more people to study engineering. This is not what has been happening. The reward for perceived leadership skills has been growing for decades.

Does the increasing pay of executive “leaders” suggest that leadership has become scarcer since the 60’s and 80’s? It doesn`t look scarce, when you look at all these LinkedIn profiles… Unless the obsession with “leadership” and “leadership skills” is failing to produce professionals with the qualifications that businesses call “leadership skills”.

What is leadership anyways?

Given how highly companies value it, it is surprising how unclear it is what leadership is. Kevin Kruse listed 5 different leadership definitions in an article that he wrote on the topic, all coming from credible influential sources. Wikipedia defines leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”. So it has something to do with social influence… But how do you measure someone’s ability to enlist the aid and support of others? It will vary from one situation to another. Some causes are easy to enlist support for, others not so much…

It also depends on the situation and the environment: A person may be very influential in one social environment and a complete misfit in another.

I believe that, for someone to be a strong leader, he/she also needs to have strong internal faith in the goal that they are trying to enlist support for. There is no leadership without a goal, just as there is no person who would strongly believe in just any goal that is presented to him/her.   So a person may be a very strong leader in the pursuit of one goal, and fail completely in the pursuit of another. Therefore, leadership skills are also very situational.

The single undisputable attribute of successful leaders is the easiest one to overlook

I can think of several people in my own life who I believe were exceptional leaders and had a huge influence on my life and career. But had you asked me, at the time, to name their top strengths, leadership would not have been on top of my list. I just thought that they were great guys, and I found working with them stimulating and rewarding. It was not until later that I realized the impact that they had on me – both professionally and personally.

If there is a single quality that defines what it means to be a strong leader, it is the ability to make others embrace and pursue a common goal as their own. An integral part of this ability is the ability to sincerely give others credit for their achievements.

Once a leader gives everybody credit, there is little left for him/her to claim. (Unless, of course, they give people credit for achievements, only to claim credit for the same achievements for themselves, when those people are not around. But then they would lack integrity – which itself would make them weak leaders.) In other words, a true leader has to be a bit selfless and put the collective goal ahead of their own ego.

And herein lies the paradox: Imagine that a truly strong leader and a narcissist are interviewed for the same leadership job or a spot in college. The strong leader will be less comfortable claiming full credit for his/her team’s achievements than the narcissist, and will be less likely to get selected.

So what`s the point of the obsession with leadership skills then?

True leadership skills are difficult to spot in the recruitment process. They may become obvious over time, as you see how someone responds to a variety of real time situation. Then again, even past leadership performance is of little value when evaluating someone’s future leadership potential, because leadership abilities differ from one situation to another. You may be able to spot leadership potential. It depends on many  situational factors whether  this potential  materializes or not.

So an obsession with finding the next perfect leader is bound to be fruitless. To succeed, organizations do not need to just find or create the best leaders, they need to become leaders: In their industry, communities, etc. Leadership skills alone are not enough to get them there.

Instead of trying to spot the qualities that may (or may not) make someone a great leader, it makes more sense for businesses to go back to the basics of entrepreneurship, and focus on attracting people with the ability to produce efficiently the products and services their market requires. This involves creating an inclusive environment of cooperation where a variety of skills are appreciated and rewarded – not just leadership skills. This is the type of environment in which true leaders emerge on their own.


Written by Strac Ivanov, MBA, PMP
Strac Ivanov is president of Vicinity Jobs Inc, a Canadian economic development and business intelligence technology company with presence in Toronto and Vancouver. Vicinity Jobs operates a network of specialized search engines and a hiring demand analytics service, and was among North America`s first companies to launch an Internet search engine for jobs. Strac holds a Master`s degree in Business Administration from Vienna University of Economics and Business. He lives in Vancouver, BC with his wife, daughter, and son. You can follow him on Twitter, at @stracivanov