What if You Don’t Want to Be a Leader?

I remember teaching a Transition GPS class on personal branding at the Air Force Academy. As I shared the common qualities veterans bring to the civilian workforce, an Airman interrupted me when he said, “Why does everyone tell employers that all veterans are leaders?” I asked him to explain. “I’ve been a leader for 22 years,” he replied. “When I take off the uniform, I just want a job where I can do meaningful work and not have to be in charge anymore.”

It is understandable that after a military career, you might not want the responsibility and accountability of a leadership role in your civilian career. Before you write off any job that includes words like, “manager, supervisory, or leader,” consider that leadership can look very different in a civilian workforce than the military.

Webster offers us this definition of leadership: A position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.; the time when a person holds the position of leader; the power or ability to lead other people. Having the “ability” to lead can make someone a leader, whether or not they actually do hold a position of leadership.

To assess your tolerance for positions of authority and leadership, consider:

  1. Your definition of leadership. Companies need both leaders and followers to function effectively. Does a job that brings risk, high visibility and responsibility appeal to you? If not, what level of responsibility and accountability appeals to you? Understanding your motivation and goals are critical.
  2. Who might you want to lead? Would you be more comfortable being responsible for people who were like you? Could you be inspired to lead people who need to be educated and converted to a new purpose or calling? Perhaps your dislike for a position in leadership comes from past experience leading an unmotivated or resistant team.
  3. Have other leaders jaded you? Have you witnessed poor leadership skills in your past? Is this turning you away from wanting to assume a position of leadership in your civilian career? If you are open to leading, but have seen poor role models, seek out a mentor to help you gain skills, resources, and insights to be the kind of leader you aspire to be.
  4. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Leadership development is a process that matures and grows over time. Intentionally focusing on your individual leadership strategy can give you the skills and filters to make good decisions that will ultimately empower you as a leader and keep your goals in check.

In the civilian work environment, relationships are based on competency, collaboration, and engagement, not command and control. Being a leader in a civilian job might include mentoring, responsibility, and accountability. But you aren’t working alone. In your civilian role, you will likely be given layers of training and tools to help you succeed.

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