It is a terrible question because everyone knows there is only one answer the interviewer is waiting to hear. That requisite response is, “I’ll have my boss’s boss’s job and be ready for a vice presidency.” The give-and-take, premised on the notion that everyone is supposed to be a leader, ignores the fact that moving up so high and fast is as sure a thing as backing a lame horse at short odds.
The honest answer to the question is, “I don’t know” or, “Ask me after I’ve had the job a while” or some variant, any of which is sure to end the applicant’s prospects on the spot. There is an alternative answer along the lines of, “I see myself having mastered the new job, happy to be doing it and looking forward to doing it for years to come.” But, this may be even worse than a simple “I don’t know” because it suggests the applicant has no fire in the belly and could actually be content doing something he or she enjoys, understands and has mastered. It is assumed that having command of one’s work is inferior to commanding troops, is inferior to leading, even though this outlook perpetuates the Peter Principle. The mania for hiring leaders has two obvious defects. Not everyone can lead, and not everyone wants to lead. Teaching leadership in business schools is as absurd as teaching connoisseurship in museum schools: we need to learn many things to become leaders or connoisseurs, but the ability to direct an organization, like the taste to discern great art from the run-of-the-mill, is not a commodity and cannot be taught. It is a matter of character and of that elusive thing we call talent. And, even with the right character, without the desire to be in charge, a person will decline to be a leader or fail trying.
There are two other defects in the practice of hiring only aspiring leaders. First, if everyone is leading, no one is following and, clearly, no work is actually getting done: where is Moses without the trailing Israelites? Second, if a leader is doing terrific work and showing no signs of slacking off or leaving, the No. 1 position is not open: basketball-great LeBron James’ job is not currently available. So, as we all know, because of the need for followers and the scarcity of job openings for leaders, most of us will spend some or all of our working lives as followers. Yet, no one seriously teaches or emphasizes followership. Establishing followership as a value is not particularly difficult. But it does require a concerted effort on the part of employers, employees and mediators like faculty in business and other professional schools and recruitment firms. If we fail to make a virtue of followership, we will continue the practice of rewarding top performers by promoting them into positions that often do not necessarily match their talents. Laurence J. Peter’s famous maxim makes the point: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
Employees also play a part in perpetuating this pattern. The phenomenon can be described in a corollary to the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to aspire to rise to his level of incompetence.” The explanation for this tendency, mirroring that for employers in accommodating such aspirations, is that the only way to make it worth an employee’s while to stay with an employer is to get a promotion. Employees may also have a subjective view of their own talents and entitlements. And the mediators — the teachers and recruiters — have not been vocal about the problem. Yet this is something they have the ability to remedy with little effort and at minimal or no cost.
First, the schools. Any student enrolling in a course in followership is likely to be stigmatized as a loser, and a course is in any event unnecessary. It would be more useful for faculties to manage their students’ ambitions. This may seem an odd idea, but consider its implications. Students in professional schools are by and large ambitious. Students may arrive believing they are cut out to be CEOs or Supreme Court justices. But, after exposure to the basics of finance and marketing or of torts and contracts, they may realize that there are many disciplines within their fields that they are not especially good at or that they will never want to deal with again. If the students do not realize it, then the faculty should point out their strengths and weaknesses to them.
Next, the recruiters. A university dean or a corporate general counsel may have signed up with a recruitment firm in hopes of getting a top job. Of course, no one likes to turn down business. However, if the recruiters see a first-class dean or corporate counsel but not a president in their client, they need to say so, to be true to the individual, the corporate employer, themselves and their profession. Like the instructors with the students, they need to be straightforward even though it is difficult. They must ask the job-seekers how they honestly see themselves and why they want to rise higher, and they must point out that there is a distinction between wanting to rise higher and feeling they deserve to do so. The recruiters must then offer their own assessment. If we were all rational and not given to self-deception, jealousy, envy and delusion about what we deserve, we would easily — and when young — make peace with being followers. We would evaluate ourselves dispassionately: no one wants to admit to being a sow’s ear, but one can still admit to not being a silk purse. We would understand there are only so many top leadership positions. We would also understand that leadership is an essential quality of people nowhere near the top, of good followers; the middle manager has staff members who require direct, daily leadership from him or her because the top person is not likely to say a word to the staff.
Nothing I am saying about followership is naïve or idealistic. My conclusions are based on experience. Those who train and recruit workers profit from their work and have an obligation to help them come to terms with reality. If they question this approach, I would quote Cicero, “If a man aspires to the highest place, it is no dishonor to him to halt at the second,” and add that it is no dishonor to aspire to the second place anyway. Hierarchical psyches may be jolted, but it is a practice we could all do well to follow.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at the George Washington University and chairman of the Education Specialty Practice at Korn/Ferry International. He is based in Washington, D.C.