Regan: Reevaluating Leadership

Not everyone is a leader, nor need they be to be employable.

by Joseph Regan | 7/27/17 11:35pm

Leadership and competence are the two qualities prestigious institutions prioritize in their selection of applicants — be it a premier university, an important organization or a major employer. While leadership is valuable and competence indispensable, so too is the often overlooked quality of conviviality.

Competence comes in many forms. Conviviality could be reframed as “the capability of effective communication.” The distinction is that being a convivial communicator is not only about communicating “well.” The convivial communicators’ approachable nature will likely help them communicate comfortably and successfully, but they are also individuals with whom collaboration is as enjoyable as it is effective. The word describes, in essence, the pleasantness of communication. It is generally difficult to demonstrate conviviality in a job or graduate school application, but the effort should be made. And on the other end, an applicant’s “leadership skill” should not take the precedence it does.

The West has an unhealthy obsession with leadership, one that is detectable in literature and manifested in the sections that divide applications and resumes. Consider the council of Greek nobles in "The Iliad," which meets repeatedly with Agamemnon, its ostensible leader, to engineer the sacking of Troy. Achilles is an excellent leader, although prone to fits of rage and pouting; Agamemnon is an excellent leader, although a megalomaniac; Odysseus, too, is an excellent leader, though not as assertive as someone incubated in the West’s genius and leadership cult would like him to be. These three remarkable leaders are not superior to those they lead; they are simply performing a different function.

The fleets of triremes that carried the Greek army and the interlocked shields of the hoplite phalanx both required sharp competence, and could not function without excellent teamwork. Competence was a must. Conviviality was grease to the oars or bent knees in formation, and leadership was the catalyst that elevated a unified whole to something greater than its parts. At the time “The Iliad” was set, individuals’ bodily strength or the impression they made upon others likely comprised the modern equivalent of an “application,” with its typical accolades and recommendations. Most of us are no longer assessed on our physical capabilities, but the way we interact with others still matters. No one applies to be an Achilles, Agamemnon or Odysseus. Leadership is not a box to be checked off. It is earned. Why, then, do positions of leadership receive so much more emphasis than conviviality, when their sheer abundance has relegated them to largely superfluous roles of empty authority?

Competence is measurable, or can at least be closely approximated by grades and test scores. Yet a list of leadership positions can easily be a list of achievements devoid of real substance. On paper it is impossible to distinguish between leaders and those for whom the appellation was the sole extent of their leadership. The problem is that, just like conviviality, leadership cannot be demonstrated by a title; it can only be demonstrated by action.

For example, you may be able to rally coworkers to your cause because you are extremely capable, because you are an excellent leader or because you facilitate collaboration smoothly. The latter is just as important as the former two. Conviviality should not be so discounted in the application processes.

Interviews, one could argue, are where conviviality is assessed. This would be acceptable were it not for the order of assessment. An interview is extended after certain degrees of competence or leadership have already been reached. When employers or recruiters do so, they relegate conviviality, the quality that will cause one to actually enjoy work with others, to second place. 

The world in which most businesses operate cares nothing for conviviality. Other fields may not be as cutthroat, but they still depend on results to stay afloat. Those whose work generates results are led by those who have already done so and been rewarded with a promotion. Thus, the most important qualities to success are not the qualities elite institutions first assess. 

Leadership is secondary to competence and conviviality in the workplace. Those who aspire to lead are wonderful additions to a work environment, but aspiring to lead is not the same thing as leading, nor can it really determine performance. It is impossible for everyone to fulfill their desire to lead without dividing the work environment into many smaller fiefdoms. A clearly demarcated and organized structure makes sense, but having countless administrative departments and subgroups devoid of justification, other than the inflation of egos, is fatuous.

All levels of an organization have tasks to be completed. The two means of impressing an employer are to work well and be a pleasure to work with. Neither of these is mutually exclusive with leadership. Perhaps taking initiative is what is actually sought after. If this is so, it is a mistake to conflate initiative with leadership — not only because of how difficult it is to ascertain true leadership ability, but also because initiative is really nothing other than the result of the unrelenting application of competence.

Being a joy to work with is not just a preferable clichéd description of an applicant or current employee. To be convivial is to naturally foster esprit de corp. Leadership is, paradoxically, only valuable if there are people willing to be led. Employers would do well to seek conviviality alongside leadership. Both qualities are valuable; both are symbiotic. It is foolish to focus so keenly on a quality which loses value in abundance. One can have too many “leaders” organizing an event but one cannot have too much conviviality at a party.