Why Are Americans So Interested in Leadership?

by Andy Wood on May 20, 2013

in Leadership, Life Currency, Since You Asked

Our Thai friend Gift is back. She visited us for the first time last year and has returned with her sister Goy.  It’s always a delight to spend time with our Thai friends because of their contagious joy, their delight in serving, and in the case of Gift, her husband Dui, and Goy, their deep love for Jesus Christ.

It also always leads to some interesting conversations.  Gift is many things – a deep thinker, a shrewd businesswoman and entrepreneur, a disciple in every sense of the word.  She told me that this time while she was here, every once in a while she wanted some time to ask some questions.

Fine, I said. Feel free to ask anything.

Lo and behold, she nailed me with the first one. She was looking at one of the books I had out – a book on leadership – and she asked, “Why do Americans study and read so much about leadership?”

That sound you didn’t just hear were the crickets chirping in my head.

Somebody just asked the fish to explain water.

“Well,” I said to break the awkwardly long silence and try to get that deer-in-the-headlights look off my face, “that’s the first time anybody has ever asked me that.”

Wow.  That was really helpful.

I remembered the trip we made in 2009, when I had the opportunity to teach Thai pastors and I taught on leadership and influence. They were gracious, but openly said, “These are things we have never thought of before.”

Seriously? Doesn’t everybody think about leadership and influence? Especially those who are in positions of leadership and influence?

Actually, no. Some people don’t study leadership – they just lead. Maybe well, maybe not. Or they just follow, content that those in authority are there for a reason and their task is to follow faithfully.

Also, just to be clear, not all Americans are all that interested in learning about leadership. But (shameless promotion coming…) maybe they should be.

But go to any book store, if you can find any left where you live, and check the business/management/leadership section. You’ll always find a plethora of leadership secrets, fads, ideas, or metaphors. Type “leadership in books” into Amazon’s search engine, and you’ll get 92,649 results. Why do people keep writing about leadership? Because somebody keeps reading.

But what is it about we Americans that find leadership so interesting or important? Here’s a random sampling of ideas – very much a work in progress. I’d like to hear from you what I haven’t thought of, so please drop a comment in the box below (or click on the title if you’re reading this by RSS or email to add a comment).

1. That’s where the money is.

Let’s get the cynical out of the way first. Americans are interested in leadership because Americans are interested in money. And in organizational life, leadership is where the money is. It’s a fascinating conversation I get into sometimes with business students, most of whom are broke and exhausted. Whenever I ask about CEO compensation being too much, almost every one of them to a person says that no one should put limits on CEO pay.  Even when you’re not the CEO? No. Because one day they just may be.

2. Americans are raised to question authority, but follow leaders.

Case in point: When then-Senator Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope he was described by the media as a “rock star.” People wept when he was elected president. I don’t think anybody cried when George W. Bush was elected, except maybe Al Gore, but he blamed it on climate change. But Obama was this inspiring figure who breathed passion and hope into the electorate. Once elected, of course, he became the most hated man in America, as is every president. But culturally, we are inspired by those who can point us to the future with inspiration and confidence.

3. We believe that anybody can lead.

“Boy,” my mama used to say, “you put on your pants every day just like he does.” Make no mistake about it, the U.S. has economic classes, but nobody is doomed to stay in theirs. If Americans had a patron saint, it would probably be Abraham Lincoln. Most Americans are brought up to believe they can become anything they aspire to be. And while we may not individually aspire to lead others, we are taught at an early age that we could if we wanted to.

4. We make heroes out of change agents (as long as they aren’t trying to change us).

We champion the stories of the underdog or the woman or man nobody ever heard of who rose up to start a movement. We routinely (ad nauseum) tell young adults that they have the capacity to change the world, then we celebrate those who do (unless they’re politicians – see #1 above). The stories of gadget inventors, marshals who bring law and order, outlaws who confront crooked sheriffs, business turnaround specialists, great athletic coaches, charity leaders who launch movements bathed in pink and many more are epic tales of conquest and inspiration.

5. Technical ability does not translate into leadership ability.

Many Americans are vitally interested in leadership because they aren’t any good at it, and they need to be. Organizations tend to promote people who are technical geniuses or entrepreneurs. These people know technology or some system for doing things, and are rewarded with a company or a team to lead. Trouble is, they know nothing about leading people, and it shows. Add to that the fact that the landscape is always changing, with new technology, new competition, and new economic realities, and we have a leadership challenge.

6. Americans find their security in their dreams.

Other cultures may find their security in stability, tradition, or a hierarchy of class-based leadership that keeps order and peace.  Not so the good ol’ USA. Americans are directly or indirectly taught early on that “dream” is an American cultural badge. After all, have you ever heard of “the Brazilian Dream” or the “Turkish Dream?” Maybe they have one, but I’ve never heard of it. Americans will follow someone who experiences the fulfillment of his or her own dreams, and can lead them to the fulfillment of theirs.

7. Americans believe they lead the world.

This isn’t patriotism; right or wrong, it’s more like paternalism. And there are two versions of it – the “ugly Americans” who act superior wherever they go, and the “city set on a hill” that shines a beacon of freedom and hope to the world. Both may be wildly inaccurate, but if we had a cultural slogan it would be “Be the best and help the rest.” And that, in our view, takes leadership skills.

8. Leadership skills are transferable.

A certain set of Americans, though not all, have learned an important secret.  When you learn to be a good leader, you also learn to be a good husband or father. A good student or teacher. A good communicator, even cross-culturally. A good conflict manager. When you learn leadership, you learn good spiritual practices. Good personal and public service. Good life planning and goal setting. You learn vision casting, life and process improvement, and team building. In short, you learn things by studying leadership that you may not learn any other way – and you can take them with you into whatever field or life endeavor you choose.

I’m sure there are more ways to answer that question, and I’d love to hear yours. In a world where every culture has its leaders, why do you think Americans are so interested in learning about it?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregg Greer May 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

That is a very interesting inter-cultural examination of leadership.

I wonder how much of the “disconnect” about leadership has to do with the difference in the cultures when it comes to “individualism” vs. “collectivism”. In the US we study leadership because we are all “programmed” to want to lead. Rarely do we see classes, books or movies that affirm the importance of allowing ourselves to be led. There are even classes on “Leading from Behind” to encourage people who do not have formal leadership positions to still show leadership. Our heroes are the mavericks who make their own rules and get people to follow them in their new way of doing things.

Your friends may be able to confirm that the messages they have received typically affirm the importance of allowing oneself to be led because it benefits the whole organization.

Andy Wood May 20, 2013 at 9:41 am

Good point, Gregg. That’s actually the first thing I mentioned to Gift, and it’s tucked away in that issue about not trusting authority. I mentioned to her that in an individualistic culture, people in positions of authority must try to avoid using their authority except as a last resort – that we try to lead by influence and inspiration first. Of course, not every leader in American culture subscribes to that idea, but living in a culture where jobs, leaders, bosses and even relationships are disposable causes all of us to depend on something more than being the sanctioned authority.

Martha Orlando May 20, 2013 at 11:43 am

I wonder, too, if the disinterest in leadership is because the Thai people are, for the most part, homogeneous, not a mish-mash of cultures and races like here in the States?
And, yes, the American Dream is precisely that – American!
Great post, Andy!
Martha Orlando´s last blog post ..Joyful Journey!

Andy Wood May 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

That’s true, Martha. And much more respectful of elders and people in authority than we are. Yet while humans are still human, I don’t see evidence there of some of the abuses of authority like we see here, either. They may well be there, but I didn’t see it when I was there.

Matt Read May 20, 2013 at 4:49 pm

That is a great question that I have never heard someone ask either. If I were to answer that question, I would “humbly” reply that America is a very ambitious country full of hardworking individuals that strive and are motivated to be the BEST. Since leadership has become so important in today’s world, hence the emphasis of leadership in a master’s degree, I feel people turn their focus to be the best leader they can possibly be. I know people might think that in other countries, but America is the land of opportunity and anything is possible with the endless amount of resources and examples to follow.

I love that question because before this master’s degree I wondered to myself if a master’s in leadership is really that relevant and important in today’s society. However, since engulfing myself in the classes and seeing how much I have changed over the course of this degree, I am so excited to continue my journey to be the best possible leader I can be.

Andy Wood May 21, 2013 at 11:20 am

Good thoughts, Matt, thanks for sharing that. While we are certainly not the only individualistic and/or ambitious culture on the planet, we definitely have a performance mentality and are raised to believe anything is possible. I also like how you are seeing the relevance of what you are learning, not just to leadership per se, but to life in general.

Brian Fouts May 21, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I think this question has a direct connection to pride. “I’m Proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free” is a line from a Lee Greenwood song that comes to mind. I am free to scrutinize anything and everything that does not benefit me, and the U.S. public school systems teach us to stand up against anything we deem to be unfair – A matter of individual perception (pride). Activists have forced God out of the schools and the curriculum teaches us if we don’t like it, lead a charge that will force it to change. Who I am in Christ; the message of what the Americas were founded upon has withered away and turned into “Get out of my way. I can do it better than you.”
2 Peter 3:17 says “You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (NKJV).

Teresa Davidson May 23, 2013 at 6:28 pm

As part of my ministry, I lead short term mission trips to developing countries. To prepare Americans for these trips, I do a “Weekend Retreat,” which includes several classes and experiences on cultural differences and sensitivities. One of the biggest cultural differences between Americans and (quite honestly), most of the rest of the world is how they perceive individualism versus community. Americans value individual rights and autonomy. They see success as measurable achievements and are competitive. They value self-reliance. Most people in the developing world value communal feelings over self-reliance. They see success as being happy and value group goals over individual rights. Leadership in America is sometimes given due to family or status, but is mostly an earned position. Leadership in other cultures is almost entirely hierarchical and handed down from generation to generation. In a village in Africa, for example, no one outside a certain family could be Chief of the village. No matter how much they studied leadership, no matter how charismatic they were, no matter if they would do a much better job. The chief that is there now is a terrible leader. He is an alcoholic who caters to the needs of his family and friends, no one else. The village has been in utter disarray since he became chief. Yet no one is even considering ousting him or asking him to step down. They are simply accepting it and praying that his eldest son, (the “next in line”) will be better. I think the question your friends asked you has a lot to do with cultural differences, and is along the lines of the question that nailed me: “Why do you care about saving the lives of babies?” It’s about where we place our values.

Pastor Russell L. Smyre Sr. May 25, 2013 at 9:29 am

John Maxwell says that “leadership is influence” and he is right. There are serveral reasons for people being interested in leadership some are good motives and other bad motives but all for the sake of influence. We are creataed to leade in our area of gifting meaning that all have the capacity. So it would be quiet natural to pursue this even if it is through unconscience effort.

Anthony Notte May 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

Dr. Wood,

I think the most striking feature of the American obsession with leadership is the fact that the idolization of the leadership role is wrapped up in the collective American psyche on such a deep level. This American-leadership connection goes further than a stereotype, like saying “Americans like hamburgers.” The connection extends to such a point that it appears deeply ingrained in the American mind. I think this is largely due to the propagation of the American Revolution story. Americans are raised with the near-mythological version of the tale, how our pantheon of gods (Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hancock, Paine, etc.) stood up for themselves and their countrymen, rebelled against their colonial masters, and became the controllers of their own fate. As result, Americans are driven, on a subconscious level, to actualize these narratives in their own lives in whatever way they are able. This translates into a national obsession with leadership.
Anthony Notte´s last blog post ..Professor Selected for APA Scholar Program

Kelly McGaha July 1, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Dr. Wood,
I would assert that the reason we are so interested in leadership, as Americans, is that we realize there is a clear difference between leadership and management. We work in a culture that prides long hours, hard work, and a high return. However, it is not often that we come into contact with leaders who motivate results, personal and professional. As a working professional who strives to find a work/life balance, I find motivation in working for those who value me as an individual. Perhaps the reason that we are so interested in leadership is the lack of experience that we have had in realizing what it was and how to work in its presence.

Daniel Webber July 2, 2014 at 7:24 am

Dr. Wood,
I think that is a great synopsis on the reason why americans are so interested in leadership. And while I have never considered this question, I believe that it has to do with the idea of chasing a concept of the American dream. Thorughout the years immigrants have come to America in hope of a better future.

Dexter Jackson April 4, 2015 at 8:17 pm

Good Evening Sir,

I certainly concur with everything you stated in your article and would add; in today’s highly evolved society people tend to realize in order to remain an effective leader. It’s often necessary to yourself informed of new leadership approaches.

Ronald Brown May 28, 2015 at 12:14 am

American exceptionalism is concept that resonates with each American generation. Americans are taught they are the richest. Americans understand that the world envied and many went to great troubles to arrive at these shores. Some more modern thinkers have sought to ridicule American exceptionalism; however fall short of denying it. Christianity and the ‘great commission’ is filled with concepts and actions of leadership. The true belief in Christ emboldens believers all around the world. America has a large Christian influence. The ideology of an earlier America instilled a great sense of self-reliance. This added to the concept that anyone is a leader and being a follower was generally seen as weakness. This self-reliance added to Christianity offers a liberal thread. Humility, once a common Christian virtue has been deeply eroded. A self made man [or woman] offers little humility. Modern concepts of ‘perceived is believed’ only contribute to concepts of prestige above substance. Discipleship as the early church had understood it embraced truthful confession of failure, self-examination, and being candid about failure was not shunned. The corrective instruction was embraced as a tool for future leadership and success not as unfair criticism. The leadership persona now embraced by a liberal Christian culture points toward one’s own vanity as an important social tool and defense against competitors even amongst the church world. The competitors may not be rivals for position but rivals for esteem within the community. A liberal thread starting with the Reformation has woven together cultural and Christian concepts throughly. The result has been the abandonment of service in favor of leading.
A secular case in point translates into leadership within Christianity. The elected officials of the U.S. are leaders and provide a civil service. Elected leaders are representatives of their constituents but have demonstrated leadership skills that made them desirable. The duality of leader and servant has swung to the leader position. Balance of service and leadership is seen as weakness or hypocrisy. Elected official are torn between doing what their district would want and his [or her] personal beliefs or objectives. The result is a loss of coherent direction for the person of balance, because they are not respected for being a servant. The leadership choice offers a two outcome solution, [success or failure] but in the near term perception is a strong leader is willing to make the hard choice. Christians in Western culture support this posture more than the humble approach. The stigma of being weak or leading by general consensus is frowned upon. Prudence and adherence to orthodox doctrine fails to provide an aggressive and visionary direction of something new. The ‘old way’ in Christianity is rejected even though new ways often reject portions of the Word. An anti-liberal stance or reactionary view are leadership perspectives that may embrace less aggressive methods or traditional direction; but this backwards approach is often shunned. The new way of things and the change for a bright future compels thoughts of leading, while other avenues are thought to be conformity. The reality maybe that conformity is real leadership but this is an unpopular view in the West. The people of the East are more adherent towards tradition and would understandably be curious. King Solomon has said that “there is nothing under the sun”; Western culture and Western Christians do not agree. Many of the leadership books offer more methods of self-exaltation than substant leadership. There really needs to be more instruction on how to be a good follower and the merits of being one.

Anthony Scrofne May 31, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Professor Wood you’ve provided valid reasons why Amercians are absorbed with the subject leadership, which I agree with your eight examples and especially appreciate the eighth. A reason I mulled over was the fact that our country will celebrate its 239th birthday this July. The USA is a relatively young country with a short history in comparison to other nations. With that said, the US has not lost sight of its leaders due to the fact our citizens only have to research and study leaders from say starting around the Jamestown establishment. I also feel because of our rapid accent as a powerful nation there is strong interest in research and writing on leadership. After all we must be doing something right concerning leadership, at least that’s how we feel for the most part.

Jessica June 11, 2015 at 6:01 pm

I agree with your assessment on why Americans are obsessed with leadership, especially #1,3, and 4. I would also add that humility is not part of what we would call success. Tell someone you are a stay-at-home mom and you get an, ‘oh, well, that sounds fun’. Tell someone you created your own home business that sells products you invented internationally, and now you are suddenly a ‘success’ story. Leadership, making something of yourself, becoming rich and famous, this is what Americans want. Americans feel this type of success is what gives their life value and meaning. A servant who washes someone’s feet on the other hand, well, that receives less than an award. Just some thoughts.

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