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Revoking Your License to Lead

Glenn Kaufman

Reviewed by Glenn Kaufman on May. 5, 2015 in Leadership Bites


I am certain that many of you will not like this posting.  So, I’ll make my point right now, and you can quit reading if you feel the urge to get sick.  But do reply- I want to know why you quit reading.

Simply put, we should license leaders.  Think about it.  Doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychologists, accountants and host of other professionals all had to pass some kind of test to certify that they knew their fields before they were allowed to practice.  Yes, there are malpractice suits and some of them go astray, but we at least know that they absorbed a body of knowledge that is essential to their field before they could hang out a shingle.  Not so for leaders, and it beckons the question, “why not”?

No other professional group impacts as many lives on a daily basis as those who call themselves leaders.  Think about it.  Politicians, business organizations, military, and yes, the very people mentioned above who work in hospitals, clinics, or their own practices!  They impact the lives of employees, clients, customers, constituents, and patients.  In some cases, yes, we elect them.  But just because their names appear on a ballot or they perform well in a debate doesn’t guarantee good leadership.

Do we have such low expectations for our leaders or believe that leadership is so “natural” or unimportant that essentially we are ok to let anybody do it?  Is it true that the cream rises and that unfit leaders are somehow winnowed out of larger jobs on the way up, and that we will be spared the agony of their “malpractice”?  I can’t imagine anyone who has ever worked in an organization believes that competence is commensurate with level and role.  I for one have had the pleasure of working for several leaders in my career that should never have been allowed to have a direct report.

As far as I remember, GRE’s, LSAT’s, MCAT’s, and GMAT’s do not test for leadership aptitude, nor do any other assessments on the path to getting degrees in the fields where many of these profession school graduates will ultimately go on into leadership roles.  Shouldn’t we have a process to grant us a modicum of confidence that they will practice good leadership when they arrive?

Imagine if becoming a leader required a process similar to that which we all went through to get our drivers license.  First, the written test to determine if we have mastered the body of knowledge necessary to operate a motor vehicle.  Then, the road test: can we actually show some examiner that we can get from point A to point B, and maneuver the vehicle safely along the way?  Then, there is the periodic expiration of the license.  True, you don’t have to prove anything anymore, but it does add a degree of formality (and earns money for the State…yes, I know).

What’s even more important is the “point” system for dealing with recalcitrant behavior of those in possession of a license!  Blow the stop sign and get caught, bingo.  Speed your way up the freeway, more points added to the license.  And of course, drive while impaired and risk losing the privilege altogether. 

I am not in favor of adding any more bureaucracy to our already regimented lives.  But think of how much different our organizational lives would be if every potential leader knew that we would not let them lead another human being unless they had some minimal proof that they understood the enormous responsibility that this entailed.  Imagine if we tested people’s aptitude for empathy, and understanding of how they impact others BEFORE we let them into roles where they have to do so on an hourly basis?

So, I suppose if you are still with me, the idea has intrigued you in some way.  I am not sure how practical, politically possible, or even remotely feasible such an idea is.  I only know that waste, grief, law suits, productivity drains, and many other side effects of modern organization behavior would be diminished or eradicated if we treated Leadership as a profession, not a job.


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