Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Why “Leadership” Isn’t Just for Leaders Anymore

Skills that were once limited to the C-suite now take place at all levels within companies.

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.

In today’s lean and fast-shifting environment, 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 2 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 2 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 2 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.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.