No, You Are Not Hiring Leaders

I often hear people talking about hiring someone into a leadership position. And I have a problem with that.

Granted, I may be splitting semantic hairs here, but it bears repeating that leadership is not positional; management is.

Let me explain.

As I have written elsewhere, management is, first and foremost, about telling people what to do and – under the best circumstances – how to do the work. As such, management is essentially about control. 

Leadership, on the other hand, is about providing a compelling why, reason, and purpose for the work to be done. In so doing, leaders must be willing to relinquish control, empower others to do their best work, and support them along the way by providing guidance and resources and removing obstacles. Those who are unable to do this will forever be limited to managing, not leading.

What many hiring authorities don’t understand is that leadership is highly contextual within an organization’s social and interpersonal networks. It takes sustained effort, commitment, goodwill, and sacrifice. It requires, at the very least, some abandonment of ego and a moderate level of humility. Consequently, it demands the will and ability to bring out the best in others – even if this makes those individuals “look better” than the leader. And not all are equipped to meet these requirements.

Yes, management and leadership are often intertwined, but they are not, by default, interdependent.

It is true that employees with positional authority may assume leadership more easily. But they do not have an exclusive claim to doing so – nor should they ever withhold this right from others.

Counter to common practice, employees in non-managerial positions, some low on the organizational chart, are often just as well-positioned to lead projects and their peers based on real-life understanding and expertise that may far exceed that of their superiors.

And this brings me back to the fallacy of “hiring leaders.”

No, you’re not hiring leaders; you hire managers, supervisors, team leads, directors, VPs, deans, or chairs. Upon their hire, these individuals are not yet leaders as they have not yet established themselves in their new positions and as central actors in the social fabric of employees and their respective networks. Of course, you hope – and can rightfully expect – that these hires will emerge as leaders. However, whether this happens will depend on a range of interpersonal dynamics, daily interactions, attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors that you, as a hiring authority, cannot control.

So, to all new “leaders,” a reminder:

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have an automatic claim to leadership just because you are someone’s superior. Leadership is both earned and granted and cannot simply be taken by asserting your position.

And never, ever mistake positionality and power over others for leadership. Because when you do, you will invariably stop trying to be a leader for your people and violate the privilege afforded to you: having others in your charge and being responsible for their success and well-being.