We should stop viewing leadership as a destination

Leadership ISN'T a destination

I’m about to write probably 300-400 words and use a lot of fluffy terms like “leadership” (hard to define, if inherently simple), “destination,” and “journey.” It might make you gag. If it doesn’t, come along with me for a hot second on this train ride.

Too often, I feel like we construe the idea of “leadership” as a destination. Think of a cliche/trope: “He’s a straight-shooter with upper management potential!” (The sad thing? I’ve heard people say that exact sentence. The sadder thing? Never about me.) We look at leadership as something that, if you work hard and commit time, you eventually arrive at it. By dictionary definition, I think that’s the same thing as “a destination.” You get on a plane, the plane is in the air for a bunch of hours, your legs hurt, you read some magazines, and you get somewhere. That’s your destination, right?


The thing is … with leadership, what’s more important is actually the journey. That’s equivalent to the time on the plane, but the time on the plane is just a few hours of your life; when we’re discussing the idea of “leadership,” the journey is basically your career and its arc.

We should view leadership through the prism of the journey, not the destination. Here’s why. 

  • When you think of leadership as a destination, it makes the journey less relevant: Think about it like this. Let’s say you have a terrible plane ride and the plane is delayed and all that type of shit. Well, when you land in Hawaii, you forget all that and you focus on, well, this stuff needs to be done and achieved in Hawaii. If you think of leadership the same way, then what happens is … all the things you witnessed as you rose the ranks — all the flaws and foibles and communication problems — you suddenly forget about those when you get there, because you’ve arrived. Your destination was a higher salary, more responsibility, and a “leadership” position. But by now, the journey is in the rearview. Now it’s time to get to work! The journey thus can’t inform the destination. That’s not a problem when flying to Hawaii; when taking over the work lives of other people, it is.
  • Everyone fails, and talking about that failure can bond you to other people. That’s part of the journey: This whole thing about not discussing failure and/or not being honest at work really confuses me at a psychological level, even though I completely understand it at a “how people really act” level. Everyone fails. It’s the defining feature of Silicon Valley, which is maybe America’s “wealth capital” right now. When we think of being a leader as a destination and we forget the journey, we are quick to dive right into how-we-think-leaders-should-act. That means we don’t talk about failures and real stories; we spend our time on deliverables and targets. When you’ve been in the shit with someone and know their actual deal and who they are and what shaped that — i.e. siblings, marriage, best friends, war buddies — that’s a powerful fucking dynamic. When you’re on a “senior executive team” with some people and all you do is small talk and then grouse about targets and where they’re set, that’s not a powerful fucking dynamic. And the core problem there is that we often think of “leadership” as a place we arrive at and start working on our tan (our leadership tan!) instead of remembering the journey that came before.
  • You are basically your experiences: Psychology and therapy understand this, but work never has. What you did before matters a lot. They tell you that in recruitment — that’s how recruitment is set up, as in, that’s what it’s structured around — but once you get in, it’s all now now now do this do this do this. You become part of the current culture, and that’s good. You should. But your experiences still shape you, at other jobs and at the job where you eventually become a leader. The experiences, in this case, are the journey. The destination is just a title.

Stop viewing it as aspirational. It’s fine to want to run a unit, or make more scratch, or whatever, but being a leader isn’t a destination. It’s something you arrive it because of who you are, and your experiences, and what you know, and what value you can add. That all comes from your personal journey. It doesn’t come from simply arriving there and becoming a leader.

Ted Bauer