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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Are you a leader, or individual contributor?

In 2004, my boss at Texas Instruments sent me to a week of training at the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs. That week was preceded by a plethora of assessments, self and 360. I had to beg people to fill those assessments so I could attend that workshop. 

After an amazing week of discovering myself and my leadership capabilities, and being exposed to leaders from the top companies globally, I sat with an organizational psychologist Friday morning to discuss what I had learned that week, and what will I be doing moving forward. 

As I sat down, the psychologist suggested that we frame the conversation around the question, "Are you a startup person, or a large company person?" She had noticed that I had quite a few startups in my past, including some I started in my own home, but at the time I was working for Texas Instruments, a company that is anything but a startup. 

But I was bothered by another question, so I suggested we use that one to frame the conversation: "Am I a leader, or an individual contributor?" She agreed, and we discussed this for the next two hours, until our time was up. 

Our corporate culture is a culture of rising up in the organization. You do anything you can just to grow to the next level, and your final goal is, obviously, to be the CEO. But I didn't enjoy leading and managing the team (two different things, I know...). Instead, I enjoyed coming up with new ideas, being very passionate and biased about them (something you may not be able to afford while being a leader), and drive them to success. I enjoyed the process of helping people see the future and the opportunities in it. I enjoyed being an individual contributor. I still do. Writing books, recording videos, speaking and holding workshops for large audiences are my individual contributions. 

After the conversation was over, we had our graduation ceremony, and I got on my flight back to Dallas. But that conversation helped me refine what I needed to do Monday morning. I realized that I didn't want to be the TI CEO (not that this was offered to me, or was an option). I didn't have what it took, and frankly, I didn't care. Monday morning I went to my boss and asked her to relieve me from my duties as the business unit manager and let me be an individual contributor. This went against our corporate culture, so she initially said no. But after a week of convincing, and assuring her that I prepared two of my direct reporting employees to take over as general manager, and assuring her that I will continue to coach whoever takes my position, she finally agreed. 

I enjoyed the following three years with the company, making significant contributions to the creation of USB 3.0, Wi-Fi, Mobile Wi-Fi, and much more. As an individual contributor, not a leader. In fact, I never went back to leading people professionally for the next fifteen years. And I don't regret it. I added a lot more value than if I insisted on remaining a leader.

You can bring value as an individual contributor. Don't follow the corporate culture of "I must be the CEO" blindly. See if this is what you want, and what you will be good at. Otherwise, as the Peter Principle suggests, we will have a lot of people who rose not only to leadership positions, but also to their level of incompetence. 

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