I do a lot of work in leadership coaching, specifically in presence and strategic communicating. Today, as I prepared for an upcoming training session for a new client, I was reviewing some of their information about success in the profession and what it takes to move up through the ranks to organizational, and not only informal, leadership.

Like a bolt of lightning I was struck by the realization that all this research and support and mentoring assumes that EVERYONE wants to be a leader. This is simply not true, and it’s a good thing it isn’t!

Aspiring leaders don’t just have to work hard and deliver on their projects; they have to find out which projects and what kind of success matters to the organization, find ways to be assigned that kind of work and then ensure the right audiences see and appreciate their role in achieving the success.  And that’s just one small part of the Snakes and Ladders that makes up the leadership track in many organizations and professions.

Leaders need people to lead. Not everyone’s vision can or should be articulated and advocated for. Not all salmon make up the stream but they all try. We are not salmon.

Many years ago, in my work with emergency services, it became apparent that not everyone wanted to become an officer.  In these para-military organizations it is abundantly obvious that moving into officer ranks comes with a big box of responsibilities and tasks that are anathema to many on the floor and on the front lines.  This is entirely understandable and ultimately better for the organization.  Forcing people onto the leadership/officer track when they clearly don’t want it and aren’t cut out for it won’t improve the organization, but weaken it.

On the other hand, there is the possibility of people stagnating in jobs that have no potential for growth. Those people often run the risk of becoming bored, cranky and unproductive.  One of the original developers of the Canadian Tire franchise in BC and Alberta, Vernon Forster, adopted a policy towards his entry level staff:  don’t stay on the cash register for more than a couple years. He even went so far as to offer matching funding for any of his employees who wanted to pursue education because he didn’t want long serving employees doing the same job over and over until they were tapped out.

Organizations that succeed manage to balance the needs of the group against the needs of the individual.  Everyone has a valuable role to play and will play it to the max if it fits with their values and aspirations and those change over time.  So, for all the failed professional hockey players, ballerinas and astronauts out there, just because you didn’t achieve those goals doesn’t mean you haven’t achieved success.