The Big Problem With Leadership No One’s Talking About

Susana Rinderle
11 min readApr 18, 2024
credit: Mironov Konstantin

Mark was in tears again. Tearing up myself, I gently asked if he was grieving. “Yes,” he said. “I’m grieving the loss of others’ trust, as well as the loss of leadership opportunities.” I was surprised, given that Mark (not his real name) had been miserable as a team lead, and it took courage to tell his boss the truth and give up the role. Over the year he’d been my coaching client, we’d established that he thrived doing hands-on work he loved. But as a 46-year-old mid-career professional with a wife and two kids, his company was grooming him for leadership.

“I feel like I’ve gone from ‘go-to guy’ to low on the totem pole,” Mark said, lip trembling. “I think this decision will limit future assignments.” My heart fell. Despite his ample financial resources and family support, he was unable to move towards the more fulfilling life he craved. Despite suffering from depression and the acute dread of staying in his organization until retirement, he couldn’t step off the corporate ladder.

Over the past four decades, I’ve worked with a lot of organizational leaders. Reported to them. Collaborated with them. Mentored, trained, and coached them. Even helped hire and terminate them.

And I’ve met many kinds of leaders. Insecure, unskilled ones. Confident, competent ones. Reluctant or unwilling ones. Aspiring leaders. Burned out leaders. Destructive, toxic leaders.

Despite my own experience as an organizational leader plus 20 years working in leadership development, I’m no expert on leadership. But in all my reading of the experts, exposure to organizations, and mentorship by leaders, I’ve never heard a single person question one fundamental assumption about leadership that exacerbates the many problems organizations face.

The problematic assumption? Leadership roles are primarily viewed as rewards instead of jobs. This thinking is so central to our modern beliefs about work that it sounds ridiculous to question. Everyone takes for granted there’s a “ladder” to climb. We accept “up or out” cultures that demand we eventually “advance” to “higher” roles or leave. When approaching middle age, we feel pressure to seek leadership positions because of their higher pay and elevated sense of worth, even when we don’t want them. When we don’t get “promoted” our self-esteem suffers, even when part of us is relieved.

Like Mark, many of my coaching clients struggle with trying to fit themselves into leadership roles they’re ill-suited for out of a desire to earn more, feel accomplished, and gain others’ respect. Many struggle with trying to conform to an organizational culture that values “growth” — meaning they look down on those who enjoy their jobs and don’t want to “move up”.

I’ve never heard anyone question one fundamental assumption about leadership that exacerbates organizational problems: Leadership roles are primarily viewed as rewards instead of jobs.

What’s baked into this conceptualization of leadership-as-reward is dysfunctional hierarchy. It’s a hierarchy because it’s a vertical power structure where both people and their roles are assigned greater or lesser value compared to others. It’s dysfunctional because (a) this assignment of disparate value to different roles is based on narrow beliefs and values, (b) the assignment of people to these roles is similarly limited or arbitrary, and (c) the system doesn’t adequately serve the majority of its participants — largely because of (a) and (b).

When employees are promoted, they’re “elevated” to roles that essentially grant two things: (1) more money than other people, and (2) more power over more people. The adjectives we use to talk about leadership (some of which I’ve put in quotes, above) point to the “power over” nature of modern organizational leadership positions. This is the same mindset that brought us feudalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and slavery. More on feudalism later, but today most people recognize that those systems were limited at best, and deeply destructive to both humanity and ecology at their worst.

The dysfunctional hierarchy that’s integral to the concept of leadership-as-reward exists despite the good intentions of an individual leader, or their commitment to equity or “servant leadership.” It’s inextricably baked into our thinking and systems. Also, the inconvenient truth is that hierarchy and inequity are necessary for a large, complex society like ours to function, despite what DEI consultants say. Thousands of humans who are neither related nor acquainted simply can’t coordinate effectively without hierarchy and inequity.

Therefore, if an employee wants to earn more than their current salary, they have two options: do the same job elsewhere or move into a leadership role. [Side note: the expectation that we increase earnings over our lifetime is also an entirely made-up concept at odds with Life on this planet that probably emerged along with totalitarian agriculture and the bizarre invention of “surplus”, and took hold during industrialization and capitalism.] This system of increased earnings tied to promotion reveals three further problems:

  1. We falsely devalue “lower level”, “individual contributor”, “frontline”, “entry level”, and “unskilled” “labor” jobs and those who do them. This is the dysfunctional hierarchy in action because not only do such jobs usually require tremendous skill, but most of these employees are the “essential workers” who are necessary to sustain human life — unlike their highly-paid “superiors”.
  2. We incentivize people who are motivated by money and power to seek leadership positions.
  3. We reward people for doing a good job by giving them a completely different job that requires a different skill set.

Given the narrow incentives for “moving up the ladder”, it’s no surprise that psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists seem to be more represented in leadership roles than the general population. And no surprise that there exists a handful of articles and research saying this is a good thing, instead of an indictment of how we normalize and reward abusive behavior that produces long term negative effects. We dangle the carrot of money and power in front of people, then are surprised when those who go for the carrot tend to pull the wagon on a mad dash that harms its passengers and often plunges off a cliff.

We dangle the carrot of money and power in front of people, then are surprised when those who go for the carrot tend to pull the wagon on a mad dash that harms its passengers and often plunges off a cliff.

But perhaps more problematic than the narrow incentives is the bait-and-switch of rewarding high performers with an entirely different job. One year after I crashed and burned following my own promotion into a leadership role (then left the organization under duress), I finally discovered the reason for my failure. In 2013 I was invited to join a cadre of consultants contracted to deliver inclusive leadership training to Fortune 500 clients. During onboarding, our instructor showed us the following graphic illustrating research by global consulting firm Korn Ferry:

The takeaway, which I presented to hundreds of middle managers and emerging leaders over the following two years, was that being promoted to a management position meant moving into an entirely different job which required a dramatic shift in skills, approach, and attitude. Our training was intended to support leaders in making that shift and to provide a wakeup call that they needed to change to be successful.

At no point was this system ever questioned. As a newcomer to corporate culture, it looked to me like a setup for new leaders who were essentially thrown into the deep end and expected to swim or allowed to sink, as I had. It also struck me as a setup for their teams who, like mine, were held captive on a stormy, perilous ride as the new leader thrashed among the waves.

I later went to work for Korn Ferry where this system wasn’t questioned either. Despite being a leader in organizational thought, no one there seemed familiar with the Peter Principle. Introduced in 1969, it describes how employees in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence” then stagnate. No one seemed willing to call out the systemic or cultural dynamics that cause this to happen, focusing instead on leaders’ individual traits and behaviors.

More importantly, no one seemed bothered by the core assumption that “rising” was good and “stagnation” was bad. No one seemed interested in people’s motivations for staying put (“stagnating”), their internal experience of doing so, or the potential benefits to the collective. After all, only viruses and cancer cells seek to grow indefinitely, and organisms thrive within a complex web of both change and stability.

Only viruses and cancer cells seek to grow indefinitely, and organisms thrive within a complex web of both change and stability.

It turned out my initial hunch about this system was right. Rewarding people with an entirely new job is a set up. I’ve seen previously capable individuals flail, founder, then drown, suffering severe damage to their self-esteem. I’ve witnessed teams and organizations wobble, buckle, and splinter from the stress, friction, and chaos these leaders leave in their wake.

We laud the few leaders that “make it” through this punishing boot camp and regard them as proof positive that this arbitrary, competitive system works, rather than investigating why so few make the transition and whether this is a good thing. We credit individual leaders’ “grit”, “resilience”, “executive presence”, “agility” or some other innate quality for their success and avoid scrutinizing the system. We praise expensive coaches, consultants, and training programs for helping new leaders succeed, yet never calculate their actual ROI.

The awkward truth is that most people who excel in their technical, individual contributor roles aren’t (yet) good leaders. Leadership requires excellent personal and social skills including emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, political savvy, and effective communication. Leadership is a learnable skill, but it requires time and resources to develop, and potential leaders must possess (a) a baseline ability to self-reflect and implement personal change; and (b) sufficient motivation and investment in learning to lead. Most organizations are neither willing nor able to invest what’s required, nor are they skilled at assessing a potential leader’s baseline ability.

The truth is also that there are many employees who have leadership skills (and enjoy leading) but will never achieve a leadership position because they struggle in the rote, “lower level” jobs they must dominate to get promoted. There are even employees (myself included) who would excel at a senior leadership level where they “manage managers”, but will never get there because they’re not well-suited for the prerequisite job of supervising frontline employees — which requires a different skill set.

Some of my most fulfilling moments as an organizational leader were when I was functioning above my title: hiring and mentoring a manager for one of my service lines, developing and communicating strategy, and collaborating with more senior leaders. Some of my most miserable moments were dealing with the day-to-day minutia of frontline employees’ squabbles and HR transactions.

In our current system, a person can’t attain a senior role without first succeeding as an employee, then as a “lower level” supervisor. In short, they must excel at three or more dramatically different jobs. Very few people are (or become, or want to be) truly effective at all of them. Therefore, leadership positions aren’t granted to those who demonstrate skillful leadership, but to those who show affinity and loyalty to those “higher up” with the power to grant such rewards. A leadership-as-reward system thus lends itself to corruption where connections are rewarded over competence, and personal value to the “top” is rewarded over effectiveness with the “bottom.”

This system is inefficient, costly, and a drag on individual and collective productivity, innovation, and job satisfaction. It doesn’t work, and everyone suffers — organizations, leaders, employees, and customers. All because we insist on treating leadership roles as rewards instead of jobs.

Another way

Imagine a world where leadership is a job. Where leadership is seen as a duty and responsibility. Where we operate under the reciprocal spirit of the feudal system (sans abuse), in which leaders are responsible for and responsive to the needs of their charges. We celebrate leaders, but not significantly more than “essential workers” who we value not only in language and public imagery but pay. We don’t compensate leaders significantly more than non-leaders, and even those with “the most responsibility” (formerly known as “top”) make no more than 20 times their average worker. And as our system shifts away from assigning inequitable value to people and roles, our language naturally shifts away from preoccupation with power-over terminology.

Imagine a world where schools and universities teach leadership skills, and consistently reward high competence and good character. A world where employers assess potential employees for their evidence-based leadership skills, suitability for existing leadership positions, and interest. Employers then hire employees directly into leadership roles at all levels according to those criteria. Like all employees, leaders are provided with clear goals and expectations for which they are held responsible. Most leaders are proactive, emotionally intelligent, socially skilled, strategic, decisive, and committed to prevention and maintenance as much as innovation and change.

Imagine a world where we no longer create and fill new jobs to make up for leaders’ incompetence. Where there’s no need for multiple layers of bloated, overpaid management. Where we stop manufacturing constant crises and praising “firefighters” who save the day by doing the job of someone “higher up” who’s dysfunctional. We eliminate the churn, stress, low productivity, and creative stagnation caused by promoting people into a job they’re ill-equipped and poorly suited for. We recover from our addiction to constant chaos and drama that used to give us a (false) sense of purpose, finding meaning instead in doing decent jobs well and being paid enough to live decently.

Sound like heaven? Or hell?

We couldn’t transition to this new world overnight. Those who would benefit from this more sane, humane world would resist its strangeness. We’re addicted to dysfunctional hierarchy after all, preferring to rail against its injustices than be liberated and take responsibility. And those who benefit from the current system would viciously oppose a change. They’d choose their higher income and greater power over multiple unfamiliar gains. Removing money and power from leadership positions eliminates the incentives left to pursue them. Unshackled from these habitual rewards — faced with the freedom to do or be something different — many leaders, like Mark, would feel lost and shrink in fear.

Perhaps the slow shifts of demographics and economics will force eventual change. A recent study found about 39% of employees aren’t looking for promotions, and over a third never want to become managers. As the “American Dream”, dependable employers, and reliable ROI from investments and education fade from view, more workers are opting for life on their own terms over a grueling ladder that leads mainly to anguish and burnout.

In the meantime, here’s hoping more of us reject the leadership-as-reward carrot or abandon the wagon entirely — before we all end up plunging off the cliff.

Hey! Need support or guidance being a more effective leader? I can help. Just drop me a line, or book a call.



Susana Rinderle

I write about civilization, personal healing, dating, politics, and the workplace. You know, light topics! I'm a trauma-informed coach.