Why do you want to be a leader? For the pay, the influence, the swanky office? Or for the difference you can make along the way?
Of course, these things aren't mutually exclusive, and it's okay to be ambitious. But if you tend to weigh the former perks more heavily, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Why? Because real leadership isn’t about the destination—you never actually arrive. It’s an activity, a process—and treating it that way is the only way you’ll get real satisfaction from your work.
Treating leadership as a prize, as something prestigious you’ll earn after putting in a certain amount of hard work, means aiming for a goal that doesn’t exist.
One reason for this is obvious, or should be if we stop to think about it. Leadership is hard work. Once you get there, you’ll always have more to do. It isn’t the reward for your work—it is the work. Once you reach the upper level, in whatever your field, you’ll have to keep working hard to stay there. And that requires a careful, often difficult balancing act.
But the other reason is that the idea of reaching "the top" is itself a fantasy. Power and prestige are relative. However high you climb, someone will always have more than you or appear higher up. If your satisfaction comes primarily from attaining power and influence, then you’ll never be happy, because there’ll always be more that you could have. There’ll always be someone doing better than you.
All this, on its face, would seem to be pretty apparent—like a lesson a Disney movie might teach about greedy villains. But in much subtler ways, this is the form that many of our ambitions take, often without us realizing it.
That doesn't make us greedy or villainous, though. Instead, it speaks to the nature of status itself—and the ways we pursue it: We don't often go after something that we don't currently have, because we already have a strong grasp of what it'll be like to have it. Desire is more imaginative than realistic, and to be human isn't to stay still.
Which, generally speaking, is a good thing—it's where personal development as well as sweeping innovation both come from. The same way healthy industries are never static, we don’t get to become a complete, whole person and then stay that way. We’re always growing, always changing, always aging. Being a successful human being is likewise an activity rather than a destination, and that holds true whether you’re a leader or not.
So if you can’t aspire to a final goal, then what can you aspire to?
The answer is simply to achieve as much as you can along the way. Some of that will be personal satisfaction from completing activities that matter to you—setting work in motion and seeing its results. The most happy and successful people (leaders or otherwise) know that there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from doing anything well, from washing the dishes to leading a corporation.
The other part is to do as much good as you can for others along the way. We'll bite the dust one day, but the good we do lives on beyond us. It also creates a better society for us to live in while we’re here.
This can sound a little dispiriting, and possibly more philosophical than an ambitious professional might find useful. After all, if there’s no destination, then why not just stay where you are?
That’s a valid option if, like a Buddhist monk, your main goal is to escape the cycle of existence. But if you want something more (or more rooted in the material present)—if you want to enjoy this life you have—then the answer is to keep on moving. It's the only way to fend off the disappointment of reaching ever greater heights, armed with misguided (if unconsciously held) expectations.
Don’t look at what’s already in place and accept it as is. Look at what you could make that’s better. Be willing to break things as they are in order to create something even more awesome. Again, this isn't just a philosophical directive pulled from the clouds: Your mind, like your body, is in a constant state of change. It can get better or it can get worse, so find activities to help it grow.
Recognize, too, that the people you look up to haven't reached some lofty and distant destination of power—because no such destination exists. Acknowledging that, just like you, they’re on a journey of constant change and creativity can help you take them off their pedestals and break free of the impostor syndrome that holds many of us back.
Because if leadership is an activity, not a destination, then it’s just as valid for you to be where you are as for your heroes to be where they are.
And how can you do the most good along this journey?
Recognize that, if there are no end destinations, then the end never justifies the means. Each activity is an end, a beginning, and a part of the journey. They should always be evaluated in terms of their impact.
It's helpful to bear in mind what Seth Godin has called the gap between "can" and "will." "Can" is wasted potential until it’s turned into action. "Will" is when you make that potential part of your journey. The moment you sit back and say that the ability to do something is as good as doing it, you’re thinking in terms of destinations, not actions.
Help others to turn their potential into action. As a leader, don’t look at where your employees are now, but where they could be traveling. How can they improve? How can they progress? And what will you do to fill the gap when they move on? If you treat their position as their destination, you’ll be disappointed when they turn it into a step along their own path—and leave you behind.