Why Being a Leader Is Overrated

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

One underrated virtue is the concept of status flexibility.

So much of American society is obsessed with spending every spare minute of life clawing the way to the top of whatever ladder you might find yourself on.

Sometimes, relative status matters. But not always. Though you won’t hear many people talk about it, sometimes you can actually improve the quality of your life by playing lower status roles.

Consider the concept of the first follower, as espoused and explained by Derek Sivers:

By attaching one’s self to a higher status person as a follower, rather than trying to be a leader, you can raise your own status. This is the basic principle behind finding a good mentor, finding a Ph.D advisor, or brown-nosing any high profile member of your community. In many ways, it’s easier to ride the coattails of someone who already has prestige than to try to achieve prestige directly.

Further, by playing the low status role in your initial conversations with new people you meet, you can raise your status long term. This is a critical subtext in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, perhaps the most important self-help book of all time.

Here are the key tenets of that book:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people
  • Smile
  • Remember a person’s name
  • Be a good listener
  • Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so
  • To be interesting, be interested
  • Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering
  • Talk in terms of other people’s interests
  • Make the other person feel important

In sum, play a role that temporarily increases your neighbor’s status, rather than worrying about your own, ,and you can reap rewards (or you can just have friends who enjoy your company).

And though obvious, it’s worth mentioning: It’s easier to play low status roles than it is to play high status ones. If everyone tries to go through the door first, there will be logjam at the entrance. Best to open the door for your neighbor instead. You avoid the rush, and you be considerate while you’re doing it.

This may sound a touch cynical, but consciously deferring to others—and being content deferring to others—in most situations is among the most prosocial things you can do. Most of society’s conflicts arise when two or more people are clamoring for status. Avoid needlessly clamoring for high status when it doesn’t matter and you avoid many conflicts.

Of course, most of us  have a desire to play the hero at least some of the time. But the savviest are careful about picking their battles.

Trying to be a leader all of the time is a guaranteed path to  stress and turmoil. Every society needs people who will play roles of modest status most of the time for it to continue to function. Not only is that rational, but it’s totally healthy. Whether you’re ultimately looking to angle for higher status in your preferred field, just looking to fly under the radar, or even if you just want to live a life of peace, consciously accepting a flexible stance on status is an effective strategy to get there.