If Everybody is a Leader No One is a Leader

“Followers of God”

Anecdotally it seems that 21st century society is obsessed with “leadership.” Students are encouraged to be leaders, we are raising a generation of leaders, and leadership is considered a virtue up there with honesty and hard work.

This sentiment has always struck me as being a little Ponzi-scheme-ish. Quite simply, by definition not everybody can be a leader, and emphasizing leadership not so implicitly degrades the followers, when in actuality the leaders are nothing without the followers. If anything, I think there are too many people trying to be leaders, and that aspiring to be a leader is not necessarily a virtue, with a surplus of people wanting to be leaders without a willingness to be a follower. The phrase “overproduction of elites” comes to mind (I got the term from Ross Douthat at the NY Times, but I’m not sure if it’s original to him). We have raised a generation  or two that they will all be presidents, A-list actors, public intellectuals, great civil rights leaders, and yes, General Authorities, and not with the idea that having a typical 9-5 job, family life, and secretarial calling is a fulfilling and worthy existence. As a result, we’re left with a bunch of disgruntled middle agers who didn’t “make it” because the number of slots available is drastically less than the number of people aspiring for them.

(As an aside, a common critique of this point is that that is all well, but you probably want *your* kids to be leaders, so it’s a little disingenuous to argue that there should be fewer aspiring leaders. Except at this point there is such a surplus of people with “soft skills” with grandiose visions of the future who want to lead, and such a shortage of people who are reliably and consistently good at a needed, hard skill, that the latter is a better route to a more comfortable upper middle-class existence for my children than the former, and that’s our own Cranney family educational philosophy, FWIW).

What does “overproduction of elites” look like in the Latter-day Saint context? I suspect we have more than enough aspiring Future General Authorities of America among the 20-somethings (I had, like, five in my high school alone); there’s not exactly a dearth of those types. I don’t have some inside scoop on the frequency of this, but another manifestation would be people who would be willing to serve in a glamorous role but not the roles with higher work-to-glamour ratio (which, if I had to rank order them, would go something like this: ward clerk, seminary teacher, youth leader, executive secretary, and EQ presidency). On an individual level, I’m familiar with cases of people in the running for fairly prestigious (religiously/socioculturally speaking) teaching positions at Church schools who, once they were passed over, left the Church. On a more subtle level, it might be manifested in members simply being less energized about their more typical callings, about organizing youth activities and balancing the tithing (okay, that last one was very hard for me to get spiritually enthusiastic about) than they would be speaking a stake conference, presiding over a disciplinary council, or acting as a Judge in Israel. And yes, some of this wound is self-inflicted by our rhetoric in the Church, but still, whether in our careers, family, or Church callings, the quicker we become satisfied with the equivalent of the typical 9-5 the happier we’ll be.

21 comments for “If Everybody is a Leader No One is a Leader

  1. There is a difference between being a leader and being the person in charge. Just because someone is given authority doesn’t mean that they know how to lead, or that they actually lead others.

    Leadership is a set of skills that anyone can learn, develop, and practice. Some of the best leaders I have known have led not from positions of authority, but from positions of support. They are the people that those in authority can turn to for advice, for guidance, or because they are dependable.

    I spent this past weekend camping with our Scout Troop (we stuck with Scouts when the Church parted ways). Some of the younger boys (most about 11 years old) asked me about my son (about to turn 13) and how he had already earned his Star rank (they are mostly still Scout rank or Tenderfoot). Even though he doesn’t hold any positions of “leadership” in the Troop (to the point that in order to make rank he had to do a leadership project instead of holding a position), they look up to him as a leader and an example.

    So yes, everyone CAN be a leader, just by being an example. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be the person out in front all the time, but you will be building the skills that others can look to as a model of what to follow.

  2. @Observer; I like that, in that sense “leadership” isn’t a zero-sum game by definition.

    @Matt W: Lol, it was probably both.

  3. Well, from what I’ve seen in ward and stake councils and so forth, many (most?) of the people we call leaders are not leaders — they are occupiers of high office, but that doesn’t make them leaders.

    Some of them also might not be good followers.

    But leader-follower might not be the apt comparison.

    What ever happened to the concept of servant? Jesus said, “Whosever will be great among you, let him be your minister” in KJV or “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” in Amplified Bible. I am not talking about the modern fad called servant-leadership, but genuine Christ-like service and compassion and nearness — does it exist among us in our Church?

  4. I loved being the ward clerk or financial clerk. I would have hated to be the stake president.

    At work I am a leader at a large tech/biotech company and I think there is plenty of room for everyone to have leadership skills, but too many people that want to have fast career growth leads to a shallow culture where delivering the daily hard but not always flashy and fancy things is not rewarded.

    I loved my mission President and some of the church leaders that I worked with as a member but glad to be out of that grind. Focusing on being the kind of Dad my kids need me to be is hard enough. I am grateful for the leadership, speaking, and language skills I learned as a member of the church.

  5. The most important leadership most of us will do will be as a parent. And it’s also the most ubiquitous kind of leadership–IMO. And! It is also the most important kind of leadership in eternity. And so, all those who wish to participate in the Lord’s Kingdom both now and in eternity must be willing to take upon themselves the mantle of leadership–even if it extends no farther then the precincts of their own homes during mortality (and, indeed, even if some must wait until the next life to don that particular mantle).

  6. I’m not a fan of the church culture of “leadership” and wish it was more “serving ship” as ji mentions. We put way too much emphasis on those that are called to presidents of anything.

    I am old, and when I was a kid (Utah) they called mostly good YM to presidents of quorums back then. Not the popular, not the jock, not the oldest, (unless they were the best members in the quorums) it was the kids that were more “Christlike” and if those kids needed help “leading” the adults helped them. In case you are wondering, I was never called as a quorum pres as a kid.

    IMO the “best” leaders/members should be serving in primary
    Next tier – youth programs
    Next tier – dealing with adults

    I think the position aspirations (men) start in the mission field. Mine was awful that way. My theory is the mission pres are typically over zealot highly financially successful biz men that expect and maybe demand those he “leads” to be the same way. Not a good church culture IMO. Yes I served a mission.

  7. Back when I was in grad school, I went from Gospel Doctrine teacher (front and center and responsible for 1/3 of the hours each adult spent at church on Sunday at the time) to financial clerk (or in other words, nearly invisible). I thought I’d hate it, and it took a month or so to see the purpose, but eventually it became a very fulfilling calling. I could take some of the burden off of an overburdened bishop, and it was gratifying to see how quickly and directly people in need were helped with some pressing problems.

  8. I’m with Observer. I think of leadership skills as being different from being in charge or having authority. And I think those skills are valuable for everyone. We all probably don’t have to think too long about church leaders we have known who have a leadership calling but struggle with leadership skills to see the difference.

  9. Part of it is to remember that a word can have multiple definitions. If you look in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it defines Leadership as:

    1: the office or position of a leader
    recently assumed the leadership of the company
    2: capacity to lead
    a politician who lacks leadership
    3: the act or an instance of leading
    leadership molds individuals into a team
    —Harold Koontz & Cyril O’Donnell
    4: LEADERS
    the party leadership


    The mistake is confusing the position (definition 1) with the capacity (definition 2). In a church where every worthy man holds the priesthood and can theoretically be called to any leadership position (definition 1), it’s important to try and develop the capacity in everyone. When you factor in leadership within the family (as Jack mentioned), it’s even more important.

    In a democratic society, where any citizen can stand for election to any office, it is also important to foster those abilities in everyone. Not everyone will get to be the first chair violin in the orchestra, but that doesn’t mean that learning to play is worthless.

  10. I have heard it said that if you call, “President,” and more than one person in a room looks up, you have a problem in your organization.

    That said, I think everyone needs to learn leadership. Everyone can be a leader is some aspect of their lives and even some aspect of Church. It’s important to learn the skills.

  11. @rec911

    “I think the position aspirations (men) start in the mission field. Mine was awful that way. My theory is the mission pres are typically over zealot highly financially successful biz men that expect and maybe demand those he “leads” to be the same way. Not a good church culture IMO. Yes I served a mission.”

    Amen to that. My first mission president was wonderful – he was a former FBI agent – maybe gave him a more realistic perspective in life. My second mission president used to threaten us all with hell if we didn’t reach our goals every week. Probably gave half the mission scrupulosity. He for sure was gunning to be a GA. Fortunately he hasn’t ever made it there.

  12. I like the point made throughout the comments differentiating between leadership as an attribute and leadership as a position. Still, the two are similar enough in terminology and usage that I still reflexively bristle when we talk about leadership as a virtue people should aspire to.

  13. Hugh Nibley’s thoughts are interesting here:

    “What took place in the Greco-Roman as in the Christian world was that fatal shift from leadership to management that marks the decline and fall of civilizations.

    At the present time, Captain Grace Hopper, that grand old lady of the Navy, is calling our attention to the contrasting and conflicting natures of management and leadership. No one, she says, ever managed men into battle. She wants more emphasis in teaching leadership. BUT LEADERSHIP CAN NO MORE BE TAUGHT THAN CREATIVITY OR HOW TO BE A GENIUS. The Generalstab tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German army, but it never worked, because the men who delighted their superiors, i.e., the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, i.e., the leaders, got reprimands. Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.”


  14. Most difficult and most significant leadership calling ever: Parent
    If done right, all other local callings pale in comparison.

  15. Old Man (and others), I agree. I wish our culture agreed, and provided honor, respect, and social standing accordingly. Unfortunately, it seems our culture provides honor, respect, and social standing primarily (maybe even solely?) on the basis of one’s church office.

  16. In the work world, the problem is that, starting in the 1980s, corporate leaders declared that “leadership” was super important and thus they needed to give themselves a ton more money. It’s just part of the decline in corporate governance since corporations decided their only purpose was to make money for shareholders (Milton Friedman had many good ideas but this was not one of them). Now it permeates the entire labor market. The university where I work revamped its HR system a few years ago, and initially one of the goals was to let you advance in your career without going into management. But that quickly fell by the wayside once consultants were brought in. Instead, no matter what skills or expertise you have or how good your performance is, your supervisor is always assumed to be at least 15% more valuable than you are (25% if you supervise people).

    Meanwhile, in the Church most people will be a leader at some point–and then they won’t be. You’d think that would do more to break down the hierarchies we make up based on leadership callings. I remember once watching a recently released High Priest Group Leader listen attentively as the Deacon’s Quorum President instructed him on the proper way to pass the sacrament, and thought “Now that’s how leadership works in the Church.”

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