Not Every Kid's a Leader; and that's OK

Last week I was dropping my son off at school. I passed by a sign in the hallway that said “be a leader, not a follower”. It was written in crayon with the name of a young girl at the bottom. It was great to see a young girl had this goal. I wouldn’t have seen such a thing written by a girl 80 years ago. We’ve come a long way as a country and a society.  We need more women leaders. It isn’t just to look like we’re being inclusive. We need to capitalize on the talents of the other 50% of our population – it’s in all of our best interests. However, gender aside, I couldn’t also help but reflect on the double-edge of that message. It seems that with leadership, like with so many other aspects of development, we’re applying a universal rule to individuals. That’s problematic, because some of whom may or may not have the aptitude for it.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a big difference between management and leadership. But for the purposes of this article, let’s say they’re synonymous. Both are associated with prestige and status. This drives parents to push their kids towards such positions, and that’s what I’d like to focus on in this article. Someone gave that kid the message that she has to be a leader, and she wrote on canvas to hang in school. It made an impression because it sounds great; encouragement to lead the pack. It’s the same message that’s given to so many kids whose parents want the best for them. The thought process goes “Leadership means success. Success means happiness.” That’s what everyone should work towards. But neither is guaranteed to be true.

Take this example:

Surface Warfare Officers (AKA “SWOs”…the well-paid cadre of personnel who run operations of a ship) compete for the role of Commanding Officer (CO). The competition is fierce. The prize is the role of CO. It is considered the ultimate achievement in this field. It’s a highly prestigious position of leadership with a tradition going back thousands of years. A ships’ Commanding Officer is the ultimate symbol of hard work, perseverance, and success. They constantly tread the line between the safety of the crew and successfully utilizing the ship as a weapon of war. It’s the ultimate responsibility any human being can have, the one over life and death. Only a select few people get the privilege. An annual board convenes to “screen” candidates and decide who is worthy. So, you either “screen for command” or you don’t.

Not screening doesn’t mean getting kicked out of the Navy. It just means that, for the rest of your time in the Navy, you’re put into a position that isn’t as prestigious, but still needed to be filled. Therefore, it was (and still is) common to meet officers who didn’t screen, and were still in the Navy. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one such officer. After 18 years of being away from his family 6-8 months at a time (deployments), working grueling hours even when at home, and moving around every few years, his record simply wasn’t good enough. When he found he didn’t screen, he wasn’t upset in the least. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, it’s like a weight lifted off my shoulders” he remarked. He was just looking forward to retiring and being done with it all. He realized it wasn’t something he ever wanted. Unfortunately, by then he spent half a lifetime chasing someone else’s dream. That’s what he was taught to view as success – the ultimate leadership role. How awful. Especially since you don’t need to be a leader to be successful.

After leaving the Navy I got a job as an HVAC service manager. I came to visit a client in his office. It was a hedge fund. As I walked passed a bunch of cubicles he leaned over and said “you can tell who makes more money by the number of screens. Each of these guys makes anywhere between $500k and $1 million a year.” The people he was talking about traded stocks. None of them had their own office. None were in any sort of leadership position. All drove luxury cars and lived lavish lifestyles. The same can be said about other professions such as Lawyers and Doctors. They found a lucrative field and applied themselves.

But it doesn’t have to be either extreme:

One of my other clients was a maintenance manager of a building. He had two kids – a son and a daughter. One day he decided to tell me all about it while my techs were doing a repair. His daughter was studious and loved school. She did well on her SATs, was accepted to Harvard, and finished with honors. She subsequently came back to the town where she grew up and became involved in community politics. So, by the age of 22 she was an Ivey League alumnus and was well on her way to being a prominent community figure. Fred’s son was a different story.

He wanted to go to college, but, as Fred put it “he hated school, he got terrible grades and barely made it passed High School.” It was pretty clear that he wouldn’t succeed, and that going down that path would be a waste of money for him. So instead, Fred encouraged his son to go to trade school. His son then went on to become a licensed electrician. His son loved it so much he went on to open his own business; working on cars, installing speakers, CD players etc. Most people would say this is “less prestigious” than his sister’s chosen path. But that’s not a productive way to look at it. This person is an incredibly industrious member of society and a successful businessman, leading and employing several people in his capacity. If he tried to go to college, he may have failed. Worse yet, he may have gotten a degree and meandered around low level corporate jobs wondering why he wasn’t progressing. Unfortunately, this is something I now regularly come across.

I now work for a different company. One of the hats I wear is HR director. I conduct initial screenings for all candidates, regardless of the position they interview for. I can’t tell you how many times I see applicants who are about as far from their talents as they can be. It’s pretty obvious they don’t really even want the part. They say the words, they go through the motions, but it’s clear they’d be happy (and probably better off) doing something else. Their resume often shows it too, bouncing from job to job, never quite finding their place. To be fair, this can be for different reasons, but I can usually tell. I often feel bad for such souls. I can’t help but think that someone, somewhere in their life taught them a definition of success that was ill-suited to their own talents and interests. They then never figured out a different path. It’s tragic.

So instead of focusing on vague attributes like “leadership” and “success”, maybe we should instead focus on processes that lead to productivity and contentment; the process of self-discovery and the process of emotional development. These are topics onto themselves, but I'd like to briefly mention what I mean.

The first is all about helping kids look for signs of developing interests. Then seeing what we can do to help them pursue such interests. This can be a frustrating process for both the parents and the kids. It can take many years and many different “interests” before you find “it” or “them”, and the end result may not be what the parents would prefer. I'm still in it. After trying gymnastics, swimming, piano, and soccer we’re now onto Karate…I’m less than thrilled about my son getting his face pounded in later on when they let them. But for now it’s safe, he loves it, and I’m seeing benefits (fitness and getting his energy out). Who knows if he'll keep it up.

The second is all about teaching kids to think through emotions in order to stay on task. My son went into a crying fit after losing his place in lego instructions. It took me 40 minutes to talk him down, figure out what was really making him upset (he didn’t want to make mistakes) and explain that feeling upset and even crying is ok, but it’s important to think through your feelings and consider your options. Forty, freeking mintues!

So all of this is easier said than done. And in the end it’s just one approach of many. But in either case, helping kids figure themselves out (instead of imposing on them) is an effort that I think is worthwhile, no matter what your style or where you are in the parenting continuum. After all, a well-adjusted and enthusiastic karate instructor, can be just as productive of a citizen as a CEO.