As my friend C and I released our built-up stress from the week in our powerful strides in a park on a warm autumn afternoon, I recounted an incident at work that’d left me in tears. I had been told by one of my superiors that it seemed the degree of leadership I actually exuded was significantly lower than my own perceptions of my leadership. I didn’t really know how to respond and before I knew it, I felt myself choking up sobs as tears starting running down my face. You see, as unexpected as that comment was, the actual words also triggered something major from my childhood. Combined with the general stress I was feeling, being reminded of this topic in that moment was just too much I could handle.
“You see,” I explained to C, “somebody in my family would always say to me, ‘some people are leaders, some are followers. You are naturally a follower.’” In response, C immediately asked, “but is that true?” Taken aback by the question, I immediately spat out an impassioned, “fuck no!” just as a mom holding the hand of a young child walked by, giving me a not-too-content glance. After sheepishly apologizing to the mom, I turned back to C, “no, I mean. That’s absolutely not true!” C’s response surprised me, as she stated, “I mean, I’m not saying you are. I just don’t necessarily think being a follower is a bad thing. Society conditions us to believe that everyone has to be the leader and anything less is considered unsuccessful and frowned upon, but when you really think about it, why? Just, why?”
In recent years there has been more dialogue around what effective leadership looks like disrupting the dominant, extrovert-oriented idea. With the study that introverts tend to be more effective leaders than extroverts amongst other findings, more people are building up the merits of introversion and, as I’ve personally observed, proudly owning that they are introverted. While certainly a refreshing step forward, these new dialogues still seem to center around a central idea – that leadership is what represents ultimate success and happiness.
As millenials, we’ve been told since early childhood to be leaders. As we move about in our careers and apply to different positions, we’re advised to emphasize our leadership experience, tweaking resume descriptions to seem more a big deal than they are. But if you zoom out and think mathematically and economically, not everybody in an organization can be “the leader.” Different positions exist for a reason, and each part plays an essential role.
In most other countries, you’d submit a CV rather than a resume when applying to positions. One key difference in a CV is that you literally just sum up what your roles and duties were without buttering up descriptions. In fact, trying to do so would likely send your CV into the trash with the hiring manager shaking their head, believing you to be stuck-up and power-hungry.
Raised in a traditional Chinese family, I was taught to value respecting authority and carrying out duties that are assigned to me. When I taught in France last year, I learned that leadership positions are frowned upon as held only by the arrogant.
Digressions aside, I do have to wonder if our American ideal of striving for leadership in the sense that it’s been defined is truly productive. Given the economic impossibility of having everybody be “the” leader coupled with potential adverse effects of unrealistic expectations, I wonder if perhaps redefining “leadership” as we know would it should be put on the table, or even what eventually scrapping the idea of leadership as the ideal to strive for altogether would do.