The Troubling Rise of “Me-dership”

Being in charge shouldn’t be confused with being a leader, writes Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of "The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader."

Earlier this summer, I dropped off my oldest son at West Point, where he was one of about 1,200 other new cadets of all races and backgrounds accepted into the academy. Some were black, others Asian. Some were Catholic, others Hindu. Some had long, curly hair, others had a neat part to the side.

Twelve hours and 40 pounds of shaved hair later, however, they all looked the same. And the resemblance was more than just physical. By that evening’s swearing-in ceremony, all 1,200 cadets were in uniform and marching in step as if they had been traversing the globe together in that formation since the last world war. Pride aside, watching the cadets march in unison across the lush, beautifully manicured lawn amid the magnificent, cathedral-like buildings took my breath away.

As the ceremony began, I got to thinking about how all these kids (because that’s still what they are—kids) enrolled in West Point implicitly believing in something bigger than themselves. They aren’t just going to college; they are committing the next nine years of their lives (four in school, five after graduation) to service.

It’s a particularly compelling juxtaposition with today’s culture of leadership, where people mistake being in charge with being a leader. Indeed, “me-dership” is becoming rampant in so many sectors. In sports, of course, we see more and more professional stars brazenly asking to be traded from championship teams to a team where they can play a bigger role—for themselves only. But the phenomenon is getting bigger in our government and among corporate leaders, too—where egocentric heads are more dominant than selfless, service-oriented ones.

“Me-dership” is characterized by people who would rather be the leader of a small team as opposed to taking a player role on a bigger team. Our research shows, however, that while leaders who simply give commands (directive leaders) or focus on hitting targets (pacesetters) can be effective in the short term, such styles produce a negative climate and very poor performance over the long term.

Conversely, leaders who articulate a shared mission and give long-term direction (visionary), get consensus to generate new ideas and build commitment (participative), foster personal and career development (coaching), and create trust and harmony (affiliative) produce a positive work climate and outstanding performance.

Another way to look at “me-dership” is through the lens of emotional intelligence. Our Advisory business found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time.

Of course, this kind of leadership isn’t brand new, but it seems more accepted today. And as it spreads, it runs counter to the culture of collaboration, fast iteration, and flat decision-making needed to succeed in the fourth industrial revolution. West Point’s protocol of giving parents only 60 seconds to say goodbye to their kids and not allowing them to speak with each other for several weeks after the swearing-in ceremony serves to drive home the idea of team unity and collaboration; cadets only have each other to depend on.

This uniformity of purpose acts as a great equalizer. It drives vision, engagement, commitment, and retention across all levels. Of the respondents to our “People on a Mission” study, 76% said purpose helped enhance collaboration, 82% said it boosted breakthrough innovation, and 88% said it guided effective decision-making.

Put another way, leadership isn’t about being in charge and giving people marching orders. Leadership should be about inspiring others to believe—and about enabling them to make that belief a reality. Where have we gone wrong?