I regularly hear from friends and colleagues who are excited about an open leadership position and are seeking advice about whether to leap into the search.
If you are a current or future leader, you have likely faced this yourself. Maybe your eyes fell across a job description or you got a call from a search consultant. Suddenly your heart is beating a bit faster and you are daydreaming about a new role. You think to yourself, “This sounds really exciting.” And then you slow down and you wonder: “Should I actually apply?”
It’s an essential question to ask and answer before you act. Throwing your hat in the ring without really thinking it through may seem harmless, but applying for a leadership position has consequences whether you get the job or not. We live in a small world and it’s easy to develop a reputation as a non-serious searcher. Wasting your own time and the time of others on a whim does not reflect well on you or your leadership skills.
Moreover, it is hard to do the real work of developing a compelling application, perhaps going through interviews and meeting potential new colleagues, without developing some kind of emotional attachment. No matter how cool and casual you feel when you send in your CV, you are bound to get caught up in highs and lows of judging, being judged, and opening yourself up to the risks of disappointment or disappointing others. This doesn’t mean you can’t back out of a search, or that you automatically know you will accept the position, but I strongly recommend taking every application seriously and only applying to the selected positions that really call to you.
In helping people decide whether this is an opening worth pursuing, I often draw on a distinction shared with me by my dear friend Ross Johnson. Ross advises, that when assessing potential future choices, it is wise to separate the opportunities from the temptations. How can you tell which is which?
One way to know that you have been bitten by a mere temptation is that you are only focused on the perceived positives of the new job. Your head is full of the status, the salary, or the location and you aren’t paying close attention to the kinds of problems you will be asked to solve in this new role. Every leadership position is about leading change and facing real challenges. The best jobs are the ones where the problems themselves inspire you and draw on your unique gifts. Opportunities announce themselves through a combination of meaningful challenges and thrilling possibilities. If the problems described in the prospectus don’t draw you closer to the position, then you are probably in temptation territory.
Another sign that you are facing a temptation, rather than an opportunity, is that your point of comparison is only your current job. It is always fun to imagine being transported beyond the boredom or anxiety of whatever is facing you today. A pretend new job almost always seems better than the actuality of the job you are doing right now. But if you are serious about looking for a new position, then the comparison universe needs to be all of the things you could be doing instead and not just the first thing that comes along. Does the job in the ad seem exciting not only in comparison to your current work but also in comparison to jobs that will be open tomorrow, next week, or next year?
And finally, it’s almost always a temptation if your thinking runs along the lines of “and that will show them.” The desire to punish, impress, escape, or triumph over others is not a good reason to apply for a job. Anger at a current colleague, or jealousy of someone else’s success, makes it easy to look for a way to demonstrate your worth. A fancier title or a more prestigious institution can seem like a visible prize. But remember, you will actually have to do the work and solve the very real problems in that role and at that place. The temporary external validation will be dwarfed by the reality of the day-to-day nature of the job. There is nothing wrong with pursuing status and salary — especially for those whose contributions have often been marginalized within the academy — but we are all much happier and more successful in the long run when those rewards are tied to work that truly fulfills us.
In my experience, real opportunities often look odd from the outside. They sometimes involve trade-offs or even sacrifices. They call to something at your core rather than just at your edges. You are compelled by the mission or the culture and you can see yourself working hard on its behalf. You start to imagine an agenda for positive change and committing to it. You are inspired. That is the spirit that should encourage you to take the risk and step forward as a candidate.