In high school, I looked for a leadership position in every club I joined solely because my admissions counselor told me that “Vice President” would get me into college better than “Member.”
That idea persisted at college. My classmates and I thought leadership titles would help us get jobs the same way they were supposed to help us go to ‘good’ schools.
There are about 7,000 things wrong with that idea (like, what the hell is a ‘good’ school anyway?’), but also, why would a hiring manager care at all that I was an officer of a drinking club with a Model UN problem? Or a drinking club with a salsa dancing problem? Or a drinking club with a Case in Point problem? It’s not an applicable job skill.
And yet, and yet, a competitive attitude about leadership titles seems ubiquitous even after people get out of college.
It’s apparent in the manager selection process at many large companies.
Employees at all kinds of tech companies join forces on the internet to roast the so-called promotion to manager.
Here’s the thing about going from a technical role to a technical manager: divide the pay raise you get by the extra hours you’re asked to work, and your hourly compensation decreases by four to seven dollars per hour. You’re also less competitive on the job market because you trade in time practicing hard skills for time conducting 1-on-1s in which you mollify disgruntled employees.
And yet, you would think managerial candidates were being chosen for the opportunity to morph into Beyoncé.
The interviewees become tense and adversarial towards each other, and the interviewers conduct themselves with haughtiness, their egos inexplicably bolstered by the fact that they get to bestow a status change upon a few from among the many.
This pattern of identifying leadership is not unique to corporations.
This year, I watched a voluntary joint initiative on Diversity and Inclusion seek to include new members. How did they select new members? Well, for seven months, they didn’t. They were too busy struggling to codify a process that would somehow infallibly determine which applicants to include and which, more importantly, to exclude.
Similarly, the LGBT Tech and Innovation Summit enacts a long, drawn-out process to decide who to include and exclude. The process involves trawling people’s LinkedIn profiles and talking amongst themselves. The selection process is opaque and subjective.
All these organizations seem to share an obsession with subjectively “picking” people out of a larger group. Of pitting people against one another for a limited set of titles. Of emphasizing individual accomplishments over collective ones, and especially scrutinizing one person’s individual contributions in excess of someone else’s.
From a young age, we learn to compete on everything (especially college admissions or the job market) which somehow, in a way society never quite explains to us, translates directly to how valuable we are as people. It’s a fallacy. And the result is these exclusive organizational structures: systems of leadership that focus on the glorification of a few and the exclusion of others.
The other day I was talking about this with a friend from Germany, and she suggested that it might be an American thing. She talked about the fluid, self-determined leadership roles from organizations she worked with in Germany. She drew the connection between the constant competition for leadership roles and the frenzy over gaining admission and scholarships at American colleges (Germany has guaranteed tuition-free education).
Here, we determine the legitimacy of a resource or role by the ratio of people who want it to people who can have it. A school with a 6% acceptance rate is better, for some reason, than one with a 20% acceptance rate. The manager role is special because only 2 people will get it, even though 10 people applied. If just 2 people apply, it’s not special. In order for someone to be legitimately in, somebody else has to be out.
We feel the need, in choosing leaders, to exclude interested parties because, unless someone is excluded, the included aren’t special. An exclusive leadership structure demands gatekeepers who get to make subjective decisions about who’s in and who’s out. Without the exclusion, gatekeepers are not only not special, they’re not even necessary.
But the exclusive leadership structure isn’t an accurate model of leadership, is it? Leadership is not a finite good that people in leadership roles consume. It’s a product, and it’s usually a product we need more of. We artificially turn titles into a finite good by making them significant and few in number.
In companies and organizations that fall into this trap, a common goal and vision quickly becomes irrelevant as people who are used to having a voice get into fights over who gets to be the boss. And then by excluding people from the opportunity to lead, we turn them off to the idea of contributing at all — which hurts the cause in the long run.
So what’s the alternative? Christopher Emdin touches on an alternative in his book about educating students outside the social standards of the privileged. He calls the alternative “cosmopolitanism.” He’s talking about it in the context of the classroom, but the idea can be applied to organizations as well.
The idea of Emdin’s cosmopolitanism is to imbue each student (or member or employee or what have you) with a sense of responsibility to other members of the community and the space as a whole.
So rather than have more important members with titles and less important members without them, all members of the group have a specified role that they feel responsible to play, motivated by their relationships with other people in the group who they don’t want to let down. The result is a more universally engaged membership: instead of just a few people enjoying their titles at the top and wondering how to get more follow-through from people at the bottom, everyone feels compelled to contribute because they each see how they, individually, further the goals of the organization.
There are still organizers, but mostly their job becomes cultivating the cosmopolitan system by making sure everyone has a specific role to play and
establishing relationships among members, so they feel accountable to each other.
Organizers spend their time answering the question: how do we get everyone to feel responsible to other members and valuable to the group as a whole?
I don’t know of good examples of organizations that operate like this. The model is contrary to our assumptions about contribution and movin’ up in the world.
Show Up for Racial Justice, I think, operates in a way that has the potential to achieve this. The activist group has specific calls to action — representing SURJ at external meetings, for example. Any member of SURJ can volunteer for these roles, regardless of leadership standing, as opposed to “you have to be X level to do Y.” This is reminiscent of Emdin’s suggestion to find specific roles for people.
As far as establishing relationships within the group, every new member to SURJ has a one-on-one with an existing member, so there’s that relationship. But beyond that, there isn’t much to build community. The only ones who end up building personal relationships through the group are the organizers, because they spend so much time together as a small group. So there’s work to be done here.
I’d like to find some organizations that shy away from the default, exclusive organizational structure. I’m hoping to scuss out whether a more inclusive leadership structure can help an organization achieve success. I’d like to believe it can, though I don’t have much evidence, unless maybe sports teams count. But if there are examples of success with a more cosmopolitan organizational structure, I’d love to figure out how that can apply for teams of all kinds.