"/> "/>

Why Leadership Isn't Just For Leaders

by Sally Helgesen

I speak quite a bit about leadership on college campuses and have been consulting with one particular college for the last year. And I’m struck by how often students make a point of telling me they don’t want to be a leader.

What do they mean when they say this? Most often, they mean they don’t particularly want to head up a large organization. “I want a good job,” they’ll say. “But I don’t need to be boss.” Or they’ll mention wanting to start their own business or work for a nonprofit.

These responses fascinate me, because leadership today is less tethered to positional power—to being the boss—than at perhaps any time in history. In the past, those who held high positions were assumed to be leaders because that’s where decisions got made, while those who lacked formal power were cast in the role of followers who implemented those decisions. But in today’s lean and fast-shifting environment, where the spread of information and networked technologies have broken down hierarchies and eroded silos, people at every level need to make decisions. As a result, leadership has become broadly distributed.

This point was driven home to me a few years ago when I did some work at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. Over dinner one evening, the colonel in charge of curriculum development told me that his mandate was undergoing a radical shift. “As a War College, we used to have a clear-cut mission,” he said. “Our job was to prepare the top two percent for making command decisions and operating at a strategic level. But today, soldiers in the field have mapping technologies on their phones as sophisticated as anything commanders can access back at HQ. They don’t have to wait to be told how to proceed in a maneuver. Our investment in technology only makes sense if our soldiers are free to make decisions that senior leaders would have made in the past. So the old two percent mandate doesn’t make sense anymore.”

The Army’s recognition of the need for disseminated leadership showed up a few years ago when it put its operations manuals online and invited soldiers to wiki in their edits. Field participants weighed in on everything from setting up supply lines and placing artillery to evacuating casualties and supporting convoys. The Army required no official approval before publishing the edits, which kicked up quite a controversy, though Stars and Stripes later reported that no superfluous entries had been posted. Engaging the troops not only elicited a wealth of fresh ideas, it also sent a clear message that real-time innovations in the field had strategic as well as tactical value.

Good organizations are following a similar path, authorizing frontline people to make decisions that directly affect customer experience and giving operational teams leeway to make process improvements. The level of autonomy granted can sometimes be startling, as the public routinely learns when a big trade in a financial firm goes wrong: “A 26-year-old bet how much against the euro?”

The consequence of this emphasis on rank-and-file decision making is that employers are increasingly on the lookout for people ready to assume a leadership stance from the get-go. For example, a recent survey conducted by Hart Associates for the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of employers who hired college graduates not only placed top priority on skills such as critical thinking, the ability to communicate, and the capacity to make complex decisions, but also believed these capabilities were more important than students’ majors or grades. Nine in 10 reported hiring based on ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity to engage in continual new learning.

Every one of these skills is rooted in and reflects leadership ability, which means that employers today are basically looking to hire leaders—not necessarily leaders who will start competing to become CEO, but leaders who can guide teams, help innovate solutions, and make smart and ethical decisions when the situation demands it. This is why it’s disheartening to hear a student say he or she doesn’t “want to be a leader.” It’s like articulating a desire not to compete for a good job.

To combat this mismatch, all of us need to spread the word that leadership no longer equates with positional power. College administrators and faculty especially need to join in this effort. In an earlier post, I noted a New York Times column by Tom Friedman on “how to get a job with Google.” Friedman interviewed the company’s senior VP for “people operations,” Lazlo Bock, who talked about the company’s emphasis on hiring for soft skills. In Friedman’s just-published follow-up column, Bock seems fairly dismissive about the potential value of a college education. Perhaps that’s because schools aren’t doing a good enough job helping students develop and articulate their readiness to lead in the post-two percent environment the War College commander spoke about.

What might help? Taking leadership out of the silo it seems to exist in on many campuses would be a start. Leadership is often segmented as a stand-alone course in the business curriculum, or as a number of courses offered together as a “leadership minor.” Instead, curriculum designers might do well to better integrate leadership into every aspect of the campus experience. Also useful would be focusing more on the concrete skills required of leaders, such as giving and receiving feedback, developing self-awareness, and regularly reflecting on lessons learned. Finally, colleges should recognize that leadership is not just about enhancing the development of select high-potential students, but also about a way of approaching the world that can benefit everyone.


Reprinted with permission from strategy+business, published by PwC Strategy& LLC. ©PwC. All rights reserved. PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see pwc.com/structure for further details. strategy-business.com 


Board composition +
Refreshing Your Board of Directors
Patrick R. Dailey, Ph.D. and Joel M. Koblentz
Battle For the Boardroom
Ludo Van der Heyden and Chris Howells
Night of the Living Board
Matt Palmquist
Strategy & innovation +
The "Third Team" Approach to Board Effectiveness
Denis Mowbray and Coral Ingley (both from Auckland University of Technology)
Tapping The Strategic Potential of Boards
Chinta Bhagat, Martin Hirt, and Conor Kehoe
Board supervision +
Best Practices: Non Profit Governance
McDermott Will & Emery
Value-Focused Corporate Governance
Christian Orglmeister, Marcos Aguiar, and Daniel Azevedo
The Trouble With Too Much Board Oversight
Olubunmi Faleye, Rani Hoitash and Udi Hoitash
Culture +
Corporate Culture, Not Lip Service, Counts
Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales
Building a Forward-looking Board
Christian Casal and Christian Caspar
Team building +
Collaborate Better
Leigh Thompson
Outgoing CEOs Shouldn't Pick Their Replacements
David F. Larcker, Stephen A. Miles, and Brian Tayan
Five Things Every CEO Must Do in the Next Era of Globalization
Hans-Paul Bürkner, Arindam Bhattacharya, and Jorge Becerra
Compliance +
Leadership +
Risk management +
Exec. evaluation & comp +
Surviving the Sophomore Slump: Moves That Matter The Most
Roselinde Torres, Judy Johnson, James M. Citrin, and Susan S. Hart
Leapfrog Succession: Trend in Appointing CEOs
Roselinde Torres, Gerry Hansell, Kaye Foster, and David Baron
Cyber security +
Why Senior Leaders Are On The Front Line Against Cyberattacks
Tucker Bailey, James Kaplan, and Chris Rezek
Corporate Governance in the Age of Cyber Risks
In collaboration with RANE (Risk Assistance Network and Exchange)
The Board’s Role in Managing Cybersecurity Risks
Ray A. Rothrock, James Kaplan, and Friso Van Der Oord
Featured +

Your library is currently empty. Browse the Boardspan Library to get started.

We use cookies to personalize content and to provide you with an improved user experience. By continuing to use this site you consent to the use of cookies.
Please visit our cookie policy for further details.