What if You Don’t Want to Be a Leader?

Soldiers in leadership positions from the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) attended the Company Leader Development Course (CLDC) at Ogden, Utah.
Soldiers in leadership positions from the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) attended the Company Leader Development Course (CLDC) at Ogden, Utah, on April 4, 2022. (Photo by Spc. Ronald Bell)

I get a lot of emails from frustrated job seekers. Most of it is a riff on a single theme: in essence, the messages say, "I've spent the last two, three, four or more months sending out resumes to employers, and I've yet to get a single interview."

It is, of course, hard not to be moved by such communications; job searching is the loneliest and most humbling of experiences, even when things go well. Without any sign of hope, it can be painfully debilitating to anyone with a sense of pride in their work.

I am also troubled, however, by something else in these messages. They reveal that many of us simply do not understand what employers want. We seem not to know what the recruiters in direct employers and staffing firms expect of job seekers.

That missing piece of the puzzle is the real source of much of the frustration in today's job market. We have to fill in that bit of knowledge if we want to see our fortunes change in the search for a new or better job.

So what do employers want? What do they expect from those of us in the job market? I think they're looking for us to demonstrate six personal factors:


Employers and recruiters expect us to make a frank assessment of our true capabilities -- not what we would like to do, or expect to do in the future, or might do with a little training and coaching, but what we can actually do right now.

In addition, they also expect us to apply only for openings with requirements that correspond to what we can actually do right now. They are put off by candidates who persist in treating their job search as a pipe dream or a treasure hunt because that wastes their time.


Recruiters are overwhelmed today with resumes (often from unrealistic job seekers). Every opening generates a tsunami of new applications, and there simply isn't the time to give each the scrutiny it deserves.

Recruiters use an array of "identifiers" to isolate the resumes on which they will focus. One identifier, of course, is the keywords contained in a candidate's resume. While that will identify those who are potentially qualified, however, it often yields more applications than can be carefully evaluated.

So recruiters use a second identifier: the initiative a candidate shows in pursuing their job opening. In other words, if we submit our resume and sit back and wait for the recruiter to find us, we're likely to wait a very long time. On the other hand, if we submit our resume and then I remember teaching a Transition GPS class on personal branding at the Air Force Academy. As I shared the common qualities veterans bring to the civilian workforce, an airman interrupted me when he said, "Why does everyone tell employers that all veterans are leaders?"

I asked him to explain. "I've been a leader for 22 years," he said. "When I take off the uniform, I just want a job where I can do meaningful work and not have to be in charge anymore."

It is understandable that after a military career, you might not want the responsibility and accountability of a leadership role in your civilian career. Before you write off any job that includes words such as "manager, supervisor or leader," consider that leadership can look very different in a civilian workforce than the military.

Webster offers us this definition of leadership: A position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.; the time when a person holds the position of leader; the power or ability to lead other people. Having the "ability" to lead can make someone a leader, whether or not they actually hold a position of leadership.

To assess your tolerance for positions of authority and leadership, consider:

Your Definition of Leadership

Companies need both leaders and followers to function effectively. Does a job that brings risk, high visibility and responsibility appeal to you? If not, what level of responsibility and accountability appeals to you? Understanding your motivation and goals are critical.

Who Might You Want to Lead?

Would you be more comfortable being responsible for people who were like you? Could you be inspired to lead people who need to be educated and converted to a new purpose or calling? Perhaps your dislike for a position in leadership comes from past experience leading an unmotivated or resistant team.

Have Other Leaders Jaded You?

Have you witnessed poor leadership skills in your past? Is this turning you away from wanting to assume a position of leadership in your civilian career? If you are open to leading but have seen poor role models, seek out a mentor to help you gain skills, resources and insights to be the kind of leader you aspire to be.

Focus on the Journey, Not the Destination.

Leadership development is a process that matures and grows over time. Intentionally focusing on your individual leadership strategy can give you the skills and filters to make good decisions that will ultimately empower you as a leader and keep your goals in check.

In the civilian work environment, relationships are based on competency, collaboration and engagement, not command and control. Being a leader in a civilian job might include mentoring, responsibility and accountability, but you aren't working alone. In your civilian role, you will likely be given layers of training and tools to help you succeed.

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