You want good leaders?

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists.  Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment.

But don’t take my word for it.  Rather, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar.  It’s worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a great snippet:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that…you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

If this piece resonates with you, then check out Deresiewicz’s previous American Scholar essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.”  You’ll see plenty of connections.

6 responses

  1. One problem is that a poor manager loves the kiss-asses and sees their behavior as perfectly acceptable. Anyone who doesn’t agree with said k-a is seen as a “take downer”. Getting a poor manager to confront his own behavior in the matter is difficult, if not impossible.

  2. I’ve seen this tendency in law firm management as well. The best and most creative associates never received the recognition that the “kiss-ups” and politicos did. In law school governance, it is often a requirement that you be an associate dean to be a credible Dean candidate. Although there are some very fine associate deans who become Deans, this requirement screens out talent. Another tendency in law school governance is to prefer a failed dean to someone who has leadership qualities but did not play politics. I think that law schools in particular need to change their thinking about leadership and leaders in a more competitive era.

  3. Michael, yes, our dual professions — law and higher education — are rife with these tendencies and practices. The untapped individual and organizational potentials add up to so much lost creativity, problem-solving, and overall productivity — not to mention satisfaction at work!

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