A LEADERSHIP LICENSE?
Todd Dewett | April 6, 2019
A person in a formal leadership role has immense power. A great leader can inspire, facilitate needed change, and create great synergies within a team. In contrast, a toxic leader can ruin self-confidence, damage effective systems, and destroy team chemistry.
Why is it acceptable to have so many bad bosses? Why is having a pulse the only true requirement?
Over the years, I have received thousands of stories about leaders. Some are uplifting, but far too often they are tragic. I remain not only amazed at the power of leadership, but also how poorly (on average) we select and develop leaders. I’ve suggested more than once that given the power inherent in positions of leadership, leaders should be licensed.
Typically, my comments receive rapid and strong resistance. There are three main objections people have offered.
The first is that leadership is easy, not complex. Thus, there is no need for formal vetting. This is a terribly difficult idea to defend. A vast majority of practicing leaders will attest to the fact that being responsible for the performance and development of other humans is far more difficult than one might expect. We vary in goals, values, skill levels, and personality (among many other variables). These variances cause never-ending challenges.
Consider the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected from thousands of practicing leaders. I have never once had one of them tell me, “You know, I thought this might be challenging, but it turns out leading is pretty easy.” I have heard many times about how it’s perplexing, tiring, difficult, infuriating, and seemingly impossible. Once in a while, I’m told about how it’s fulfilling and noble. However, no practicing leader thinks it’s easy.
Another interesting objection is that we can’t license leaders because there is no definitive body of knowledge. For example, if you wish to be a manicurist, there is a finite number of skills to build and bits of knowledge to demonstrate. The same, they say, is true of leadership. Again, a position that is impossible to defend.
For over one hundred years astute thinkers and organizational scientists of many varieties have been articulating the body of knowledge. The theoretical base is robust, the practical implications are very well-known. There is a useful and highly credible knowledge base. From goals to emotional intelligence to the elements of effective decisions making, there is a definitive, practical, and readily available knowledge base.
Finally, people raise concerns about the cost of licensing leaders. There is no doubt there will be costs. There will be a direct cost to take the training and / or exam, whether that goes to internal instructors or an outside vendor. There is also an indirect cost because the potential leader must spend time preparing for some the exam. That’s time not spent doing their normal job.
Yes, there are costs. The real issue, however, is the cost of bad leaders. The cost of bad leadership ability is very real and extremely large. Just think about the cost associated with low engagement and productivity. With bad bosses in place it takes more people to accomplish less. Or think about voluntary turnover. The biggest cause of voluntary turnover? Bad boss relationships. If you think quality vetting, training, and licensing sounds expensive, it’s just a fraction of the dollars wasted due to low engagement, low productivity, and voluntary turnover.
Listen, we license nearly everyone else, why not leaders? If you want to be a dentist, you need a license. Psychologist? You need a license. How about taxidermy? Usually, you need a license. If you’re a young kid and wish to set up a lemonade stand in the neighborhood, you very often must have a license or permit, or you face a fine. Isn’t it about time we admit that formal leaders in organizations are as important if not more important than these other groups? You only see the dentists once or twice each year. You see your boss five days a week!
I haven’t even mentioned the well-known costs associated with stress at work. Many experts believe that occupational stress is one of the great unaddressed killers. We talk about how red meat might hurt you, or how certain fats might get you, but we say terribly little about the heavy mental and physical effects of unnecessary work stress. Care to guess the biggest source of unnecessary work stress? Bad bosses.
If you love leadership, at some point you have to start demanding good leaders. So, let’s talk about how we select and approve new leaders. A license just might be a legitimate part of the solution. If you have a better idea, I’d like to hear it.