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Dr Layla McCay Headshot

Is Leadership a Dirty Word in America?

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Last year I won a UK prize essentially for my leadership skills. This year, with nominations for the prize opening, I mentioned it to a friend here in Washington DC. "Oh no," she said. "Americans would never claim leadership in their skillset."

This concept completely floored me, because in the world of UK employment, we love leadership. No CV is complete without claiming to have 'led' something. No professional (or even unprofessional) interview would skip the key competency of leadership. And no training program worth its salt, no matter the subject, would overlook the ubiquitous leadership module. I am a proud member of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, I co-wrote the preface to The ABC of Clinical Leadership, and I have given countless talks about the importance of leadership in medicine. Leadership is the aspiration, the word du jour in Britain. It had never occurred to me that leadership might be considered an undesirable quality in the U.S.

Delving further, my friend elaborated. She suggested Americans don't subscribe to the attribute of leadership because it is perceived as potentially insulting to other Americans: if an individual is recognized as a 'leader,' the connotation is that other individuals are necessarily the led. And if all men are created equal, that's not okay to imply.

All men may be created equal, but are some more equal than others? I tried to use the U.S. President as an example: widely referred to as 'leader of the free world." Ah yes, but crucially not defined as the leader of Americans. It's fine to exert international leadership. Anything closer to home? Distasteful. Thus I was told by an informal survey of my U.S. acquaintances. They explained that rather than filling my CV with the word "led," in America I should say "drove;" instead of describing leadership skills, I should flaunt my teamwork capabilities. A quick Google search suggests that while there is some praise of Americans in leadership, these often esoteric acknowledgements do indeed seem sparse compared with enthusiastic European, African, Asian, Australian leadership courses, discourses, and awards.

It would be disconcerting to think that there is really no leadership in America. Nobody setting a vision for people, nobody inspiring and setting values or strategic direction for organizations. It's obviously untrue -- people continue to inspire those around them, and to be the force behind motivating others' actions and change, to make decisions and bring people along with them. To be unanimously voted captain of the football team. Or President of the United States of America.

It seems to me it's not that Americans don't value or exert leadership in the U.S.; it's just that they don't seem to like admitting to it. Not even the president.