This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Harmful Statements about Leadership
Let’s give attention to some statements about leadership that are endorsed by our culture but may not be true. In fact, these statements may even be harmful to individuals and organizations and the missions they pursue.
Myth #1: Everyone is a leader.
This statement is ubiquitous in leadership literature. A quick internet search will guide you to a host of articles with this phrase in the title. It is usually accompanied by a definition of leadership that plausibly supports this claim. For example, one might define leadership as influence, and since everyone has influence, everyone is therefore a leader. Clearly, part of leadership is influence, and it is presumably true that everyone has some influence on others. But this is like saying everyone is a doctor because we all deal with illness or everyone is a chef because we all prepare food. Defining doctor and chef so loosely simply makes the words meaningless. As Betsy Jordyn notes, “The ‘everyone is a leader’ myth, which has been blindly accepted as truth, actually waters down the significance and uniqueness of the gift of leadership and keeps people who don’t have that gift from finding out what they actually are great at doing.”1
What, then, is leadership? Admittedly, leadership can be difficult to define. As part of research for his book The Future Leader, Jacob Morgan asked more than 140 CEOs from around the world to define leadership. He noted that his interviewees seemed to pause, sensing that leadership was a word that everyone used without really defining. Once the definitions were given, he commented, “From more than 140 people, I didn’t receive a single duplicate response.”2
Though there is truth in what Morgan says about the diversity of leadership definitions, the problem this poses can be easily overstated. As long as we are not seeking a perfect, universal definition of leadership, an ordinary dictionary serves rather well. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary entries for “leader” include phrases such as “foremost or most eminent member (of a profession),” “a person of eminent position and influence,” and “a person who guides others in action or opinion.”3 Further, a leader is one who “takes the lead in any business, enterprise, or movement and who is ‘followed’ by disciples or adherents.”4These definitions serve admirably by making explicit our common intuitions: leaders are people who have followers; leaders are the foremost experts or people of eminent influence; leaders are not just one of the pack, they are people who guide the direction of the pack. If leaders are defined in no small part by the fact that they have followers, then a simple truth emerges: in any given setting, someone has to be the follower, and therefore everyone cannot be the leader.
One might think this is merely a vocabulary problem, a complaint about the way we talk about leadership and nothing more. However, the way we talk has consequences, some of which can be dangerous or destructive both to our souls and the organizations and communities that we are a part of.
We often say that everyone is a leader because we want to be inclusive; leadership is a trophy we want everyone to receive. However, this desire actually hurts and excludes the very people we are trying to include. As we have noted, the plain fact is that in any given setting everyone is not a leader; in fact, most members of a group are followers, not leaders. But if we say that everyone is supposed to be a leader, then the word “follower” just becomes shorthand for “failed leader.” As a result, being a follower is not defined as a job that one can do well, it is defined as a job that you are failing to do—the job of leading. In this way of thinking, the only way followers really become successful is if they become leaders.
Myth #2: Everyone should aspire to lead.
Perhaps, one might argue, even if everyone is not a leader at any given time, everyone should aspire to be a leader. If one cannot be a leader in all contexts, at least one can be a leader in some. But why? Why must everyone aspire to leadership? Because leadership is good and following is bad? Because everyone was designed to lead and we should fulfill our design? Because we will never be fulfilled if we are not leaders? There is no reason to believe any of these claims are true.
Beginning with the first claim, there is no reason to accept that leadership is good and followership is bad. They are both necessary. If one is leading, one should be a good leader. If one is following, one should be a good follower. There are good and bad versions of both followers and leaders.
Second, there is no reason to think everyone is designed to lead. When we look at spiritual gifts, leadership (or administration) is one gift among many. It is not a gift given to all. Of course, one could lead even if one lacks the gift, but it is not clear why that would be desirable, much less universally required. It might very well be necessary at times—a fallen world is full of demands that do not always correlate with our gifts or motivations, and we trust that God would give us the grace to rise to the occasion and meet the demands that are placed upon us. That might mean leading in times and places we would rather not be leading in yet are nonetheless called to lead in. But that does not make leadership something that we must aspire to; it simply makes it something we might be called to do by the providential arrangement of the circumstances in our lives.
Third, the idea that we must become leaders in order to find fulfillment and meaning in life seems to be an unlikely claim. Many people do find leadership fulfilling, but that is generally because they have a gift or passion for leadership. Using our gifts and expressing our passions certainly contributes to a flourishing life. As we have noted, however, everyone is not gifted as a leader and everyone does not have a passion to lead. Some serve under the leadership of others and find themselves quite happy and fulfilled. They rejoice in the success of the organization that they are a part of. They rejoice in the contributions that they make to the organization.
They may particularly rejoice in making contributions that others cannot—in feeling needed, essential, even irreplaceable. But they can experience all these joys without being christened as “leaders.” So why should contentment in following be viewed as a character flaw that needs to be corrected? It is difficult to make that case.
In short, none of the reasons suggested above actually support the claim that everyone should desire to be a leader. It is true enough that no one should decide ahead of time that they will refuse to be a leader. The mere fact that some people don’t feel like leadership material is certainly no guarantee that they are not going to be called to lead. As previously mentioned, some of the best leaders are people who initially seemed unlikely or unqualified—not just business leaders like Darwin Smith but also biblical leaders like Moses and Gideon and Jeremiah. However, the willingness to lead when called upon and everyone having an obligation to lead are two very different things.
Leadership is not a fruit of the Spirit, and it is the fruit of the Spirit that characterizes Christian maturity.
Myth #3: If you are not leading, you are missing out or being irresponsible.
A further consequence of our cultural tendency to make everyone a leader is that those who do not lead are told that they are leaving their potential undeveloped. As John Maxwell states, “You have influence in this world, but realizing your potential as a leader is your responsibility. If you put effort into developing yourself as a leader, you have the potential to influence more people and to do so in more significant ways.”5 It would seem those who do not become leaders are burying their talent in the ground—a strategy that ended rather badly for the servant in Jesus’s parable. This contributes to feelings of guilt and frustration for those who are not leading. It may also lead to feelings of injustice when a person is not given their supposed chance to lead. Finally, it may result in people working for leaders who are not particularly gifted or motivated to lead but feel obliged to because they would hate to be accused of following the example of the unfaithful steward and burying their talent in the ground.
Myth #4: Leadership is an essential mark of Christian maturity.
When we universalize the call to leadership and combine it with stories like the parable of the talents, it is hard for leadership not to be viewed as a fundamental mark of Christian maturity. But in reality, though biblical leaders are called to be mature, every mature person is not called to lead. Leadership is not a fruit of the Spirit, and it is the fruit of the Spirit that characterizes Christian maturity. One can be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, and self-controlled without being a leader. Go back and reread this list—are these the qualities that we uniquely associate with leaders? Certainly not. We might like it when our leaders are this way but these are not the defining characteristics of leadership, nor are they characteristics that are uniquely associated with leaders. In fact, our normal stereotypes seem to associate these qualities more closely to followership than leadership.
Myth #5: Leadership is the goal we aim for.
Making leadership a proper expectation for each and every person turns leadership into the equivalent of the North Star. The North Star is an easily visible fixed point by which we navigate. It orients us, and by keeping it in sight we know where we are and if we are going in the right direction. Much of our education, sociology, politics, and government navigate by the star of leadership. Those working in these areas ask who and how many are leaders. They are preoccupied with paths to leadership and train and equip people to travel down these paths. To be clear, we (Rick and Joanne) don’t think the path to leadership is a bad path, and we certainly don’t think the path to leadership should be barred to any person ahead of time, especially not based on race, class, or gender. Dismantling such obstructions is a noble cause and will greatly improve our institutions. Making leadership our sole point of navigation, however, is dangerous.
I (Rick) learned a lot about the proper place of leadership from my father. He spent his vocational life as a research scientist. He was exceptionally good at it and seemed to thoroughly enjoy his work. However, he never really climbed the corporate ladder. He never became the head of his research group or division. And I never spent a lot of time thinking about this as I was growing up. Dad seemed happy enough with his work, so why would I think about it? After I graduated from college, I spent some time working in a research lab myself as a means of paying for seminary. As I watched how the lab worked, I realized that the leader of the research lab spent very little time actually doing laboratory research. In fact, in three years of working there, I don’t recall actually seeing him working in the lab at all. However, he was constantly raising funds, serving on committees, networking with influential leaders, and dealing with institutional management issues. His days were not spent in laboratories but in meeting rooms, banquet halls, and boardrooms. He was a very effective laboratory director. And I realized that my dad would have hated doing that job! He loved doing things hands-on—tinkering with things on his workbench, inventing things from scratch. My laboratory director, on the other hand, loved seeing all those things get done, not doing them himself. He and my dad had a very different set of motivations. And I’m grateful that my dad was wise enough to navigate by what he loved and what he was good at, not by the siren call of leadership.
Similarly, we need to be very careful of what we are viewing out our windshield as opposed to what we can see out our side windows. Christians in particular are called to keep the love of God and the love of neighbor squarely in front of them, visible through their windshield. These loves are not the same thing as leadership. As we pursue love of God and love of neighbor, leadership opportunities may very well come along, but they approach from the side. They join in on a journey that is not headed to the land of leadership but to the land of love and service.
We hope that we have made it clear that we are not opposed to leadership. In fact, we are actually great fans of it. We just want to make sure we keep leadership in its proper place, and that place is not every place. In fact, we wish leadership advocates would spend a little more time identifying the proper place of leadership for individuals and organizations and a little less time trying to sell leadership to each and every person. We wish for such a change not because we want to devalue leadership but precisely because we respect and value it—we should avoid bleaching it out and making it apply to every person at every place and time. And we should also release people from the relentless obligation to lead. Leadership is a calling, leadership is a gift, and leadership is a responsibility, but it is not the only calling, it is not the only gift, and it is not the only responsibility. In fact, one of the most important insights we would offer in this book is that despite many myths to the contrary, followership is every bit as much of a calling, gift, and responsibility as leadership is.
- Betsy Jordyn, “Not Everyone Is a Leader,” Purpose to Profits (blog), January 11, 2017, https://www.betsyjordyn.com/.
- Jacob Morgan, “What Is Leadership, and Who Is a Leader?” Chief Learning Officer (blog), January 6, 2020, https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/.
- Oxford English Dictionary, “Leader,” accessed December 7, 2021, http://www.oed .com/.
- Oxford English Dictionary, “Leader.”
- Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You 2.0, 5.
This article is adapted from The Call to Follow: Hearing Jesus in a Culture That Is Obsessed with Leadership by Richard Langer and Joanne J. Jung.
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