I’ll never forget my confusion the first time I saw someone promoted to a senior management position who most people would never want to work for. I asked my manager why, and he said that the person had sold the most in the last year. Just because he sold the most, he was now leading? That did not make sense to me; it still doesn’t.

Too many people have become leaders this way – doing what they were told to do inside the box they were given: They moved the most product, followed the status quo, and looked like the other leaders. They were simply what I call the best “sowers” of opportunities right in front of them – not solving for other opportunity gaps that existed.

I understood why: There is often little reward for doing more than sowing. “Follow the prescribed steps, and you will find success” was the typical mantra, which basically amounted to “sell more and don’t rock the boat.” This is why most employees when assigned a task, given a special project, or asked to execute a plan, do what they are best at: executing to deliver immediate, short-term results.

This is not just an unsubstantiated generalization. It’s based on data from my company’s “Workplace Serendipity Quiz” (an online quiz taken by more than 500,000 individuals since 2009), and it is exactly why our workplaces have stopped innovating.

The result is that a lot of people are in leadership roles who should not be. Note: I am not saying these people should not have been rewarded for their success. But if leadership is all about sowing, then it is just about the transaction – everything is a commodity including the people you sell to and who work with and for you. It’s never about individuals; it is about sales.

And here is the thing about sales: eventually someone somewhere will beat you on that, be they in another part of the country or another part of the world.

When I mention this to the leaders I work with, I get a lot of nodding heads. Their number one complaint about leadership is that they have lost touch with the business today. As a result, they are running the business and themselves into the ground and losing to the people who see the current opportunity.

What to do? Don’t fire those leaders. Use them as part of your ongoing reinvention and renewal – for reallocation and reimagining all our resources. Move them into advisory roles where they lead from behind rather than out in front and allow their rich history with the organization, the wisdom that they bring, the client experience, and their experiences contribute and influence in a different way.

Doing this, however, requires leaders to be vulnerable enough to understand that organizational wisdom and courageous enough to see enterprise-wide reinvention and renewal as an opportunity for their evolution and growth – both individually and for the capacities of the organization. In the end, leaders must know that 30 – even 20 or 10 or 5 – years of experience does not mean they are ready for the marketplace of today. The weight of their titles and past accomplishments has made them forget that those titles do not account for market changes.

How do you know if your leaders are unqualified to lead and that the workplace and marketplace has passed them by?

  • They lack leadership influence beyond their job descriptions and thus fail to understand how that influence should maximize organizational and marketplace growth and discover the full potential in others.
  • They are not courageous enough to embrace diversity of thought and find like-mindedness in people within their differences to build relationships on collaboration and trust.
  • They don’t articulate their Personal Brand Value Proposition – how their differences are understood and what opportunity gaps they solve for to close them with greater speed and agility.
  • They fail to drive growth through the Cultural Demographic Shift™ and the distinct needs of diverse populations to influence growth strategies faster and more efficiently – for all populations.
  • They are complacent and refuse to strengthen corporate culture and create competitive advantages and growth opportunities.

Leaders who understand this – and thus lead in the opposite way – have what I call the innovation mentality and will never let the marketplace and workplace pass them by. They do not miss the opportunities to be significant and make their leadership sustainable in a fast-changing marketplace. They must have the circular vision to see that the way organizations and leaders operated a generation ago is not as relevant, timely, or influential today. They must always be ready to change the conversation and break free from the status quo. If that sounds like leadership cognitive dissonance to you, then you do not have the innovation mentality required to lead today.