It’s Time to View Leadership as a Profession

Guest post from DDI’s Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D. (reprinted with permission from DDI’s Directions newsletter):

Leadership is a craft. So why do so few see it that

The 2011
documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi tells the story of an 85-year-old
sushi chef and his small restaurant in a Tokyo subway station—the only sushi
restaurant in the world to be awarded a three-star Michelin Guide rating. Jiro,
the sushi chef, has been making sushi for most of his life, but still, well into
old age, he strives for perfection.

I recommend
you watch this film yourself (it’s now available on DVD). Better yet: watch it
with a group of leaders! As you will see in this film, Jiro is a professional in
the truest sense. I challenge you, upon watching the film and seeing how
passionate Jiro is about sushi, to imagine what it would be like if the leaders
in your organization were as passionate about leadership.

Of course,
people who take their craft seriously—people who leaders can learn from—aren’t
found only in movies.

There is a
local jewelry repair kiosk in the mall near where I live. My family has been
customers there for over a decade, and I have always respected the owner’s
passion for what he does. He has told me he considers his work a real craft, and
that he has invested 18 years in constantly trying to improve.

For the past
three decades I have spent about 20 percent of my time traveling. When on an
airplane, I always make an effort to strike up a conversation with the person
sitting next to me. What we talk about always tends to follow the same course.
We exchange names, tell where we are from, and, of course, explain what we do. I
have met many interesting people this way, including the COO of McDonald’s, the
prime minister of agriculture for Thailand, and Patch Adams, the physician who
sought to humanize medicine and was portrayed by Robin Williams in a 1998
theatrical film about him.

I have met
engineers, pilots, sales managers, marketers, teachers, and bankers. But I
cannot recall one single person—not one—who has ever told me that he or she was
a leader.

Why is this? I
believe it’s because no one really sees leadership as a profession. In spite of
the fact that there are some 10 million-plus leaders in the U.S. alone, few
identify themselves as leadership professionals. This is, in many respects,

Perhaps this
is one of the reasons leadership quality is considered by many to be mediocre,
at best. Dozens of survey reports continue to decry the sad state of leadership.
DDI’s own Global Leadership Forecast 2011 reported that only about 38 percent of
leaders rate their organization’s leadership quality as high.

So, how can we
begin to change the way we think about leadership? I believe it boils down to
these four things:


1. Look
at leadership as a chosen specialty.
One of the defining traits of
professionalism is specialization—choosing to devote tremendous time and effort
to attaining a high level of proficiency in a single field, such as music,
surgery, or law. As a result, professionals will describe their profession not
only in terms of what they do, but also in terms of what they have devoted their
time and effort to master.

The same should be true for leaders.
Leadership is a craft that is perfected over time through the focused dedication
of time, attention, and self-awareness. When you become a leader, whatever your
level or industry, it becomes your profession and you have an obligation to
invest the time and effort to become the best leader you can be. Most leaders
simply do not look at it this way, however. It’s time for that perception to

2. Use
Professions usually have standards for performance,
knowledge, and skills. Some require degrees, certifications, accreditation, and
exams. Due to the evolving nature of professional standards in some fields,
continuing education is also required. For example, in the human resources
profession, both the American Society for Training and Development and the
Society for Human Resource Managers have established standards and certification
processes. But if you do a Google search on “general leadership standards” you
will come up with very little (my search only generated about 1,700

There is no one examining body for
leadership and no continuing education credits are required. Yet, each year
countless job analyses, academic studies, and books attempt to distill the
essence of good leadership. While the outputs of these efforts vary in form,
there tends to be little variance in the skills, behaviors, and personality
components identified as being essential to extraordinary leadership. 

In their own way, these components amount to
a set of commonly accepted leadership standards. And while we are unlikely to
see a leadership standards board with national or global certification processes
(though that isn’t a bad idea), there are a handful of valid tests and
assessments that can accurately predict leadership performance. Still, only one
in three organizations uses these tools.

3. Pursue your Passion. Just
because you are part of a profession doesn’t mean you are a professional. Many
people find themselves in professions from which they derive little if any
satisfaction. On the other hand, most
professionals are highly
motivated to do what they do and do it well. I would argue that many leaders
consider what they are doing—leadership—a “job” as opposed to a lifelong
On the other hand, extraordinary leaders
(the true professionals) love being in leadership for the right reasons: helping
people grow, mobilizing the organization in a new direction, and building
engaged and high performing teams. Motivations such as these should be what
really matter to leaders.

4Practice. Practice.
Much like Jiro the sushi chef, the late Pablo Casals, the
great cellist, practiced into his eighties. When asked why, he said, “I can
always get better.” The same attitude should apply to leadership. Doug Conant,
the highly respected former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, put it this way: “To
me, leadership is my craft and I have to work at it, and I’ve got to have the
same continuous improvement mindset about my job that I challenge my associates
to have about theirs.” 

True professionals like Conant are never
complacent. Hours of practice are what make them stand out—and what keeps them
on top of their game. Leadership skills can be learned and they can and should
be practiced. When leaders commit to continuous improvement in their craft,
there’s no limit to how good and how effective they can become.

The time is at
hand for us to start viewing leadership as the honorable profession that it is.
If you are leader, commit yourself to your profession, and strive to develop the
right leadership skills, especially the Interaction Essentials required for the
successful conversations that are the foundation of leadership

Work hard to
improve, and be proud of the important work that you do. After all, your ability
to be a great leader really matters to your organization. Make the most of the

Rich Wellins, Ph.D. is senior vice president of Development Dimensions International (DDI), and is an expert on leadership development, employee engagement and talent management. He is responsible for launching DDI’s new products and services, leading DDI’s Center for Applied Behavioral Research (CABER) and its major research projects and developing and executing DDI’s global marketing strategy.