Careers versus careering

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Career is both a verb and a noun.

Some leaders enjoy a career as a noun. They diligently climb the career mountain, make their way to the top and hopefully make a difference when they get there. They are narrow band leaders: they are very good in the organisation and the industry which they have come to understand intimately during a thirty year career.

For some of us, career is a verb. It describes how we slalom down the career mountain, lurching from triumph to disaster with increasing speed and decreasing grace. Occasionally we do an involuntary double summersault before landing flat on our face: this is more amusing as a spectator rather than as a participant sport. We are broadband leaders: we will lead anything. If we have nothing to lead, we buy a dog so we can lead that.

Those who have careered, rather than had a career, think they can lead anything. Experience tells us that we lie to ourselves. We are good in some situations, not good in others. There is no magic pixie dust of leadership that we can sprinkle on everything in the hope of turning some base operation into a nugget of gold.

The danger for narrow band leaders is that rarefied air at the top of the career mountain muddles their heads. The attractions of committee and commission land, sitting on some boards and joining the ranks of the good and the great are overwhelming. But there is little evidence that a good retailer or IT partner can solve crime, or run a health trust or a major charity well.

We need to be humble as leaders and recognise our limitations. Remember Warren Buffet’s advice: “When a great manager joins a lousy organisation, it is normally the reputation of the organisation that remains intact.”


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