The other day, a colleague posted on LinkedIn that “everyone is a leader.” Although the sentiment appeals to me since my passion and profession is leadership at all levels, I can’t help but holler BS!

Not everyone is a leader; to say so is incorrect, absurd, and in some cases, downright harmful.

Let’s look past the semantics that the idea of a leader requires a follower (if everyone is leading, who is following?). Even if leadership is defined in a less position-based, more modern egalitarian way, such as Tim Elmore’s statement that leadership is using influence for a worthwhile cause, the hard evidence around us demonstrates not everyone is, can, or should be a leader, no matter how it’s defined.

Before the self-esteem crowd blasts me, let me clarify a handful of points.

Can everyone strive to hold themselves accountable? Yes.
Can everyone strive to set high expectations for themselves? Yes.
Can everyone strive to conduct themselves with humility, consideration, consistency, and kindness? Yes.
Can everyone strive to inspire and support others? Yes.

I believe we can all strive to do those things; it’s called striving for personal leadership.

That said, my experience with employees at every point along the continuum in organizations from small to large (as well as my observations in life) shows me that not everyone actually does these things. And since the behaviors listed above are a few that represent the foundation pieces of leading self and leading others, I have no choice but to repeat, not everyone is, can, or should be a leader.

And while it’s nice to believe that all of us have the potential within us to be a leader if only the right resources, time, guidance, environment, support, etc. were provided, experience suggests that even when those things exist, there are some who simply can’t lead themselves to the front door, let alone to the front lines where leadership happens.

I’m not in the business of inactive potential; I’m in the business of engaged potential.

So why do I claim that the Everyone as Leader myth is downright harmful? To explain, I’ll need you to patiently take a journey with me into the world of higher education.

A few decades back the cultural norm and propaganda went from we all should get a college education to we all deserve a college education to we are all entitled to a college education. So what happens when everyone is not just encouraged to go to college but claims an entitlement to go – even those who for a large handful of reasons shouldn’t? The laws of supply and demand and unintended consequences are what happens. With not enough colleges around to handle the flood of students, prices go up. They go up because they can, but they also go up because they have to; space is limited after all. And since we’re entitled to this education, the government necessarily has to step in and provide funding for this entitlement to exist. So now we’ve got a flood of demanders with pockets of money but still not enough seats to go around. Presto blamo, colleges go online and colleges run as businesses pop up to meet the demand. With this overabundance of demand and ready money, prices go up again. And again. And again.

The question relevant to my point is, What happens when those not suited to the academic rigors of college but who were indoctrinated with the belief that everyone should go to college realize they’re not suited? Their self-esteem plummets. They feel like failures. They drop out. Or the academic rigors are dumbed down so they don’t have to drop out. Unfortunately, when people drop out, when the rigors are dumbed down, and when anyone can get a college education because of free money and low standards, a college education becomes meaningless in personal value and in the job market. The result is that the value of money is arbitrary – as is the value of an over-priced education – and students are left “burdened” with massive debt. Enter loan forgiveness. It doesn’t get more arbitrary than loan forgiveness.

What’s my point? Not everyone can or should be a college student. When we make everyone believe that they should go to college without evidence they have what it takes mentally, emotionally, and physically to do so, we set them up for failure. Please understand that I’m not saying those not suited to college aren’t intelligent. I am saying everyone has different intelligences, some of which are better suited to vocational training or practice, development, and expression. College is both ill-suited and ill-advised for some.

When we try to make people believe that everyone is a leader, we devalue the idea of leadership and we set many people up for failure in the exact same way – people who might otherwise feel fulfilled, happy, or satisfied in their lives.

Leadership is not the end all be all of personal success. It should not be positioned as the necessary element to success for all. We in the leadership business do a tremendous disservice to a great number of great people when we make those claims.


References:  Elmore, T. (2014, February 20). Is everyone a leader? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/artificial-maturity



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