Leadership Development

But I Don’t Want to Be a Leader

unenthused business leaderTrends in business are fascinating, aren’t they? Many trends are good and useful, others are a complete mystery. Case in point, we continue to put people in management and leadership roles who are ill equipped to develop other people or really have no passion for it.

It’s an unfortunate practice that persists despite the growing availability and advancement of diagnostic tools and the application of competency mapping around variables like emotional intelligence. Talent development professionals can and should proactively identify people developers within their organizations and work to advocate for performance systems that identify and guide individual contributors versus authentic people developers.

Let’s start by considering the concept of regifting. How many of you have received a gift and while appreciative of the gesture, knew it wasn’t something you wanted or could even use? Being polite, you accept it graciously. Except now, you have this new possession and no idea what to do with it.


The same thing happens when you promote someone into a management position who either does not want it, or worse; they don’t know what to do with the promotion once they have it. They almost certainly don’t feel like they can give it back. How often does someone refuse a promotion? And down the road, that manager is likely to repeat the same mistake and regift a leadership role to someone else probably for the wrong reasons.

I saw evidence of this trend two decades ago when I went into private practice, and it’s still happening today. Just a few years ago, Gallup concluded that 82 percent of the time, companies fail to choose the right candidate for a management position, and those managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores.

Companies still promote high-performing individual contributors to management roles without considering two vital things: one, whether the employee is well suited to develop others and provide training to prepare them for their new role; and two, whether the employee even wants the responsibility of managing and developing other people. Some high performers prefer to remain in a specialist role, and demonstrate the mastery of their skills in that way.

Not only is that reasonable, it should be celebrated and encouraged. It isn’t to say that individual contributors may not eventually seek out a role where they can develop others; we just shouldn’t put them there prematurely and unprepared.

So, what does this mean in the chain of regifting leadership? Promoting people who are ill-suited to be managers increases their stress and that of their direct reports. It stifles the natural flow of feedback that effective people developers facilitate and ultimately diminishes psychological safety between team members. It can be beneficial to pinpoint a prospective manager’s emotional intelligence and their ability to create a setting where team members are highly engaged and able to understand their purpose, master their skills, and understand how it contributes to the organization’s overall direction.

Failing to recognize an unsuitable management assignment breeds a work environment where engagement falls, morale erodes and disengagement takes hold. According to a 12-year Harvard study published in 2013, and conducted by Porath and Pearson (HBR), under these circumstances, 48 percent of workers intentionally decreased their work effort and 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work product. This is active disengagement and no amount of motivational messaging will work if your organization is stuck in this state.

On the other hand, how do we identify the people developers early and cultivate their desire to build others? Gallup estimates that one in 10 people possess the genuine talent to manage others, and there are many circumstances when that talent remains hidden — probably because the managers to whom they report have difficulty recognizing those traits.

To prevent poor promotions, first, assess people-management competencies from the very beginning — make it part of your recruitment and succession planning process. There are several instruments that will reveal these traits in both people developers and individual contributors. Companies would also do well to revisit the norm that progression within a company is only by way of a management position. Managing people is hard work, and the skill set required to be good at it is unique. It’s as unique as the skill set needed to be a disciplined specialist and individual contributor.

Second, make it safe for employees who want to return the gift of leadership. There should be no shame in realizing that one’s best work and most satisfying contributions come from their specialization; their favorable impact on the business should be recognized and rewarded. Create an environment where these shifts can occur, and better managers are put in place.

Finally, seek out the real people developers. The same assessments and tools that determine people-management competencies likely will reveal those people who have the capability to grow and develop others, and actually have the desire to do so. That’s a gift worth keeping.

John F. Broer is the assistant vice president, learning and development for Welltower Inc. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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0 Comments

  1. The problems is more basic. Leadership is wildly misunderstood. This is particularly true of the leadership industry whose development programs have had little or negative long term effects. Because of this, most senior managers do not understand leadership and only lead their subordinate managers to lead in the wrong direction, toward disengagement instead of engagement. The science of people makes very clear what leadership is and why people react the way they do to what management does and does not do.

  2. I am curious to know what assessments you have used, or would recommend, to assess people-management competencies?

    • We are working with DDI to pilot a Leadership Preferences Inventory, which gives people the opportunity to reflect on their motivations and personal fit for a leadership role. This is not specifically competency based- we use other assessment for that. However, we wanted a tool that helped individuals reflect on why they want to be a manager, and if it aligns with our expectations of leaders. We just wrapped our pilot a few weeks ago, but initial feedback on the assessment has been very positive.

    • Martha – I’ve used a number of assessments through the years but more recently, we have had success identifying certain “markers” or traits that either enable or deter managers in the area of people development. Currently, we are using the Predictive Index.

  3. I find there are fewer and fewer general managers these days. Most managers now tend to have experience in the functional area they are managing. In some ways, this actually exacerbates the problem because work is increasingly complex and therefore we tend to promote people who understand the actual work rather than those who see management as a profession in its own right. It is also true that technical and professional specialists tend not to respect pure managers or what they see as “figureheads.” On the other hand, I like management and actually miss managing my team (I still have a management title but haven’t actually managed a team in three years now). In spite of the fact I am quite hands-on, I enjoy management roles. I like to be able to lead, coach, manage, train and develop people while also doing “real” work myself. I personally believe that we should strive to create more hands-on management and leadership roles for people like me who consider themselves to be “ambidextrous” with respect to technical or functional skills versus management — or who fear losing their technical abilities while still wanting to move into management.

  4. As I was reading this article I kept trying to keep my mind open to determine the authors differentiation of “Leadership” and “Management”. I would agree BOTH require the support of an educational curriculum designed to engage, and support the particpant. Both I believe, need to include a high level understanding of the theory behind the practice but, more importantly, the educational opportunity needs to be customized to the organization so the particpant can immediately see relevance and immediate application of new skills. Reinforcement and support from both faculty and a Mentor are also essential.

    • Betty – I absolutely agree with your premise about reinforcement and support. For purposes of clarity, in this article my focus is on the person who has been put in charge of other people but isn’t well prepared or focused on developing them. Not that they couldn’t grow into that role – the question is whether they really want to be put there in the first place. We also know that effective leadership has nothing to do with title. If you are managing people, you should be equipped to do so and that includes the capacity to know how to grow and develop them. Thanks for the comments!

      • John .. a GOOD Point.. It is about having leaders who have managerial skills, self confidence, love what they do AND the skill to develop others.. I think it wise to “call out” that skill in any Leadership Development program. We try our best to do that..


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