Why settle for a supporting role when you could play the lead?

Questions like this carry an inherent assumption - that everybody wants to be the lead. Or at least they should want that. Not so.

I recently read an article in the New York Times about a woman who has built a 20-year career working as an ensemble dancer on Broadway. She has been in 18 musicals and is a six-time recipient of a peer-bestowed award given to ensemble members with the most Broadway credits. No small feat.

And yet she regularly encounters people who assume she'd prefer a starring role.

"I find it a little insulting that people think what we do isn't enough," she said. 

Exactly, I thought.

In my line of work (I'm a career coach) I see a lot of people who feel pressured to step into a leadership position that they don't really want.

These people are good at their jobs. They're happy in their work.  They just have no desire to move into larger leadership roles. 

I also see another group of people in my work - the people who succumbed to the pressure to climb. (Because there must be something wrong with you if you're not interested in movin' on up, right?)

But many of these people are miserable and drowning in  work they never really wanted to do in the first place. It's lose - lose. Organizations are stuck with floundering leaders, while the leaders themselves long for the days when they were good at their jobs and happy in their work.

Of course there are people who love the climb. They want more leadership and more responsibility and they thrive in leadership roles.

So the question is, how do we honor and reward our leaders without punishing or pressuring our high-performing (but not leadership-oriented) supporting players? Because, let's not forget, things don't work without them.

Here are three suggestions for supporting the supporters that your business can't survive without:

1. Ease Up On The Leader Worship

How many articles have you seen or read about Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, Larry Page, Richard Branson, or Mark Zuckerberg? Probably more than a handful, right?

Each of these individuals is leading a multi-billion dollar organization with thousands of employees. And yet we act as if the success of their business boils down to some personal secret sauce.

What does Richard Branson eat for breakfast?

How often does Tim Cook meet with his staff?

How does Elon Musk schedule his day?

Mark Zuckerberg says he saves time wearing the same T-shirt to work every day. Maybe I should do that.

To reduce an organization's success to its leader is a fairy tale. It makes for a great story, but it vastly oversimplifies things.

Leader worship glorifies the person at the very top (usually a white man in case you're keeping score), while ignoring the many, many ways that people (of all races and genders) come together to make a meaningful contribution.

By all means, celebrate the leaders that inspire you! But let's remember that leaders don't exist without their team of followers. Being a high-performing member of a team should always be enough.

2. Think Beyond Promotions

We tend to think of a big, juicy promotion as the ultimate reward for a job well done. But all of that power and influence and money comes with more pressure and responsibility. Plus, when you get promoted your job changes, often significantly. If you actually liked your job, that's a problem. An undesired promotion may be the first step in forcing out your best employees.

If promotions are the only way you're rewarding your best and brightest you may want to think again. Sabbaticals, bonuses, more vacation time, and greater autonomy over work projects are all ways to reward employees.

Not sure what's the best thing to offer your all-stars? Ask. Which brings me to my next point...

3. Get Clear On What You Want

This one falls to each of us, personally. One leadership opportunity might look like a nightmare, while another looks like a dream, and some may choose to steer clear of leadership roles entirely.

Sure, our leader worshipping system seems to be pushing us ever upward on the corporate ladder, but if taking a leadership role isn't for you, say so.

This takes guts because it bucks convention. People might think you're crazy (or lazy). If so, do what you can to let the people you work with know how much you value your current work and that your talents are best used there - in the supporting role you kick ass at on a daily basis.

Published on: Apr 21, 2016