Business Today

When not to be a leader

Leadership is not necessarily the logical or even desired career progression.

Saumya Bhattacharya | Print Edition: Feb 6, 2011

Technical Lead at one of the top information technology services firms recently told me that she had a tough time turning down a managerial role. She has some five years of experience and is perfectly happy being a Java specialist. "This is where I want to grow; I do not want to get into people management. But am I doing the right thing for the long term," she worried.

Saumya Bhattacharya
Saumya Bhattacharya
Well, the lady does not, perhaps, realise it, but she is already in a leadership role - that of intellectual leadership. Leadership is no longer just about leading people, businesses and organisations. More and more companies, especially in technology, are creating and finding paths for domain specialists. Yet, the dilemma whether to stay in niche roles or move out into people management continues to bother domain specialists, especially at the early stages of their careers.

Bimal Rath, Co-founder of Think Talent and former human resources head of Nokia, says that there is a social and monetary pressure at the junior and middle levels to take up people management roles as they are attractive in monetary and designation terms. Also, "people manager" is perceived to be a more powerful role. So, the first step is to understand what you want in the long term. "A domain specialist needs to figure out where the real long-term success lies," says Rath. If you are clear that you are a domain specialist, tell your organisation as much. "More and more organisations understand and appreciate that. For example, it is better to have a great technical lead rather than a lousy people manager," he says.


Leadership is no longer just about leading people, businesses and organisations. More and more companies, especially in technology, are creating and fi nding paths for domain specialists
So, when should you turn down or not ask for a leadership role? Meena Surie Wilson, Senior Enterprise Associate with the Research, Innovation and Product Development Group of the Center for Creative Leadership - Asia Pacific, lists three scenarios when you can refuse a leadership role.

First, when you are committed to advancing your professional expertise - for example as a surgeon, a lawyer, a researcher, and so forth. Assuming a leadership or a managerial role will get in the way of your becoming an expert in your line, as it often takes years to develop professional expertise. Second, professionals can lose the respect of their peers if they are diverted from developing their own expertise and assume an administrative role too early in their career. Third, and, perhaps, the most important, when you are convinced that you are not the kind of person who wants to guide the work of others - not now, not ever.

Figuring out this last bit is crucial because getting into managerial and people roles does have its tangible benefits. Knowledge about other people is fostered. "In essence, leadership is involvement with others - setting direction, aligning others' work, and gaining their commitment," says Wilson. Traditionally, managerial positions command a higher salary. Plus, you get insights into business and strategy leadership.

What if you are offered a managerial or leadership position this appraisal season? If you are an outstanding domain specialist, go ahead and speak up your mind. However, if you have any doubts or are not clear in terms of your longterm career plans, it is better to take up the offer. But while doing that, ask your organisation for training and development. Your company may be willing to enrol you in a leadership development programme. "Companies must take the onus of creating managers," says Rath. And you might just discover a new domain you are good at - people skills.

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