Recently, I met someone who’s looking for a new opportunity (read: they’re unemployed). When I asked them what kind of work they were looking for, they said they wanted to be a leader.
It took me a few moments to process the reply. I hadn’t really spent a lot of time considering it. Is being a leader an occupation?
I mean, leaders exist in all different kinds of organizations – big/small, public/private, for profit/not-for-profit. In a wide variety of industries – tech, health care, hospitality, transportation, etc. That leads me to believe that being a leader isn’t a totally nebulous term. There’s an expectation a leader in an organization has to be a leader at something. Meaning you need to have some kind of technical knowledge in order to be a successful.
So needless to say, I’m struggling with leader as an occupation.
Then, the Harvard Business Review blog published a post about management being an occupation. You can check it out here – It’s a thought provoking post. Fortunately or unfortunately, it added another layer of complexity to my thoughts.
Is being a leader an occupation?
Is being a manager an occupation?
Are being a leader and a manager the same thing?
Can manager be an occupation and leader not? Or vice versa?
Maybe the part I’m having challenges with is that it’s coming from a candidate. For years, companies have tossed around the philosophical question – what’s more important, having leadership skills or industry experience? That whole idea of whether we should hire for attitude and train for skill. Somehow, it just sounds different coming from a candidate.
Which then poses the question…how would a candidate “sell” that idea to a prospective employer? Basically, the candidate is saying, “I have no industry experience and no technical knowledge but I’d like you to hire me because I’m good at leading a group of people.”
I wonder what companies would do with that resume…
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. It has such implications for our companies – would you hire a proven leader with no industry or technical experience? And is that different than hiring a manager with no technical experience?
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons2
I think a Leader is a Leader at everything he/she does, in other words you do not have to be in “management leadership position” to be a leader, each one of us have the opportunity to lead our personal life, our family, our company ( even as a single contributor), our church, etc.
I agree with Juan. A Leader is a Leader in all that they do. No matter where they start in an organization, they will rise to the top as it is a natural progression for them. My concern: A good Leader in any organization must have some industry experience, and not necessarily technical in order to lead effectively. Some of our greatest leaders came from little to no experience in the field they took on. Some are just “born leaders” and some are content not to be a leader at all.
Deborah Herman says
My guess is that someone has been coaching this person to say that as part of their “elevator speech”. IMHO a “leader” doesn’t have to say they want to be one. They just are.
Lisa Rosendahl says
This be a great coffee, comfy chair conversation topic. I can’t keep my thoughts from jumping between “…in this situation” to “… but what if.” A few things that I am starting to anchor on:
I would not hire a proven leader with no industry or technical experience because althought some are born leaders, effective leadership is situational. Take a great military leader and place them in a non-profit and it could be disaster.
I would hire a manager with no technical experience – depending on the technical area – if they possessed the critical thinking, organizational skills, problem solving, ability to discern, and proven ability to learn on their feet. It would not always be my first option but I would do it.
I see management and leadership as different and I don’t see them as occupations unto themselves – but would love to engage in the conversation further.
Karla Porter says
I just did a search on indeed.com for “leader” and surprise, surprise… I actually got one return where that was the only word in the title. Health Alliance in Cincinnati is looking for a “leader” – but being a licensed nurse is a requirement. Every other job title that had the word leader in it also had some other pesky indicator like retail, recreation, contract, safety, etc. One can step into a university and step out with a degree in leadership or management. That may make them a top contender for acceptance in a corporate manager training program (Target has a good one) but I wouldn’t bet my paycheck that the degree alone would ever qualify one to walk into an organization and take the reigns of a department – let alone a division or the entire business.
“I want to be a leader” is an aspirational statement equivalent to “I want to be a rock star” – if that’s the case one needs to be a great singer or musician first, the “star” is the recognition that comes when everyone knows it.
Lisa is right, good coffee clatch conversation..
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for all of the comments and great discussion.
When I heard the statement, Juan’s comment was the first thing I thought of. You can have volunteer leaders, so I’m not sure leadership is an occupation.
Carla brings up an distinction I hadn’t considered – technical knowledge versus industry experience. I can see that now…knowing the dynamic of the industry is important but you might be able to learn the technical piece.
Maybe that’s where Lisa is coming from. Not hiring a leader without industry or technical experience. But it’s OK to hire a manager and as they learn/grow, they would move into a leadership role.
Karla asks a great question. If you get a degree in leadership, does that qualify you to be a leader? My first reaction is no – you need some kind of experience. Otherwise when you are leading, it’s all about theory and not execution.
And, if the number of job postings with leader in the title is small … hopefully they will revamp their elevator pitch as Deb mentioned.
Susan Finerty says
I think for the best leaders, leadership is a way of life. It is how they think and solve problems in all aspects of their life, not just their work life.
Cindy Lund Chow says
I have to admit, this topic is really making me think.
At first I thought that to be in a leadership role you must have some technical or industry knowledge in order for the people you lead to have respect for you, but also so that you can coach them. However, saying this, I have often seen disastrous results from people promoted to leadership positions solely because of their technical ability. So I am torn to say the least in my opinion on this one.
I guess when it comes down to it, I think the best leaders are avid learners and those that can bring out the strengths and abilities of those that they lead. So, if they are willing to learn enough to support their team, I think then yes, I would take the leader over the technically astute. Does that make leadership an occupation? Not sure, but I do think that it is a pivotal role that if done right, can bring people and organizations to higher level of success.
Eric Payne, LtCol, USAF (ret) says
As I was reading the post, I was thinking about how the military (nice graphic) develops leaders who can lead in multiple environments (the leaders as occupation approach). They are provided with both leadership training and experiences. Many are succesful leaders in a variety of assignments and also transfer this talent to civilian jobs in the public and private sector. And a rule that works for everyone…you become a leader by leading.
Sharlyn Lauby says
I agree that leadership goes way beyond our paying jobs.
Cindy mentioned something that I’ve seen on many occasions. Organizations that promote the most technically competent person regardless of whether they possess the ability to work with people. I really like the learning aspect. But if I put on my “glass is half empty” shirt, then I wonder how a company would know if a person is truly willing to learn the business.
I wasn’t thinking specifically about the military when I wrote this post. Eric’s example definitely applies. But then I’d like to think that a person with military experience would convey the technical knowledge they have that translates to the industry they are applying within.
Thanks everyone for the comments. I’m really enjoying reading your perspectives.
HR Exhibition says
leadership is about managing a team of people and working towards a common goal and hopfully a happy ending! A leader must gain the respect of his followers by displaying a good quality of skill sets.
situations are different for people, but there is defintely a pattern of characteristics for good leaders .
HR Student says
I agree with all comments. A leader is a leader in all aspects of their life. But also you have to give someone opportunity to lead to develop leadership skills. I am not sure I can say being a leader is an occupation on the other hand. I think you would have to have some technical experience in a particular field to lead it. I do believe some people are born with leadership traits or even can develop them but I don’t think anyone can google search Leadership Jobs.
I am a graduate student studying health systems management and much class discussion has been dedicated to discussing management vs. leadership. So, to address one of the points made in the post, being a manager and being a leader are not one in the same. Management involves: planning and budgeting; organizing and staffing; and controlling and problem solving. Leadership involves: establishing direction; aligning people; and motivating and inspiring. I do believe that managers can possess leadership skills and leaders can possess management skills. To add to that, I think that to be a good manager you must possess good leadership skills.
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for the comment Kelley. I do have a tendency to think leadership and management are different as well.
Interesting thoughts about what it means to be a leader. One can be a manager and not be a leader; however, it would be difficult to “follow a leader” that is lacking in technical skills or knowledge. As a graduate nursing student, I have spent time exploring the difference in transactional managers and transformational managers. In my opinion, what is often sorely lacking in my particular organization is transformational leaders, i.e., those who inspire and instill the vision of the organization into their followers or subordinates, obtaining “buy-in” and high levels of performance as a result. At the same time, without the background experience in nursing, and an understanding of what the front line worker is experiencing, the “leader” does not possess the credibility he or she could have, nor the impact upon the follower. Although leadership is an appropriate career goal, and some are inherently talented in leading, the respected, effective leader is often one who has arrived in the position, having “been there, done that.”
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Donna!