Leadership isn’t just about Title or Rank….or is it?!

Most of us have experienced the feeling of being ‘passed over’ for a promotion or caught in the crosshairs of an organizational restructuring. The feeling of being ‘demoted’ can be demoralizing – whether it is real or imagined. And to make matters worse, often individuals buy into the myth that if they do not attain the position or title they desire – they must not be perceived as leaders.

Well….newsflash: that story could not be further from the truth. The best leaders – bar none – do not lead solely from position or authority. It is NOT about rank, title, span of control, position, or ‘political alignment’. Frankly, some the ‘positional leaders’ to whom I reported in my career, were the worst leaders and ‘role models’ for which I worked. And, most were ‘short lived’ in their roles….as my father has always taught me: “If you see it, everyone else sees it. You just have to be patient and let it play out, Resist the temptation to ‘call it out’ – as that will backfire on you.” Ugh – easy to say, yet, often hard to do.

So, what are a few truisms to give us strength in times of restructuring or when we are facing a ‘set back’ (perceived or real) in our professional journeys? A few things:

  1. Again, leadership is NOT about position or title. Just because someone keeps a title or ‘gets’ a title – does NOT make them a leader; nor does it mean YOU are not a leader! A quote I read years ago by Doug McGannon (who, by the way, I do not know NOR do I even know who he is….which again adds credence to the concept of leadership not being tied to position or title) stated: “Leadership is an ACTION not a position.” Just because someone gets promoted when we may not even be sure they are fully deserving (which does happen right?!), does not make them a leader nor does it command respect or power. Period.
  2. Yet, wait a minute Kristin, the reality is that many view leadership as synonymous with position and authority. OK, let’s face it – when someone gets promoted, they do get access to funding, control over decisions, etc. I ‘get it’ and yes – that can be very frustrating when you may not agree with their decisions. We have all been there, right?! Here is the gig: for the most part – we do not control the decisions of the ‘higher ups’. We most certainly can INFLUENCE them and their decisions. To quote another well-respected professional, Ken Blanchard, “The key to successful leadership is INFLUENCE, not authority.” So, if (when) we find ourselves in a position of lessened authority, we have the CHOICE to lead through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Again, as my father has taught me: I only have real control over three things in life: my Attitude, my Behavior, and my Choice. Darn it – I don’t control anyone else’s! I just control my responses. Thus, we can LEAD through our own ABC’s….or not.
  3. A setback can be positioning you for a comeback. Though it can be a challenge for many, realizing a step sideways or even ‘backwards’, can be the most AMAZING position from which to stage a comeback. Frankly, ‘zig zagging’ in a corporate setting can teach us amazing skills which position us long-term for elevated leadership roles, versus a straight line going ‘up and to the right’.  When we find ourselves in a situation or position, we did not expect – what can we do to optimize, maximize, and learn from the experience? Five tips to consider:
    1. Keep yourself aligned to your PURPOSE. What do YOU WANT to do? How do you wish to contribute in your life? It is most certainly different for each of us….let’s face it – you are UNIQUE. NO ONE has your DNA or your unique capabilities. The key is to stay true to you. Trust me – I am quite certain MANY thought I had lost my mind when I left Corporate America when I was arguably at the top of my game. Yet, frankly, I had ‘lost the plot’. It no longer fulfilled me as it once did. I had to have the courage to stand behind my conviction to figure it out and embrace my new direction. Whew – let’s be clear: it is not easy to leave the comfort of golden handcuffs – trust me. Yet, what I know for sure – my life was indeed happy, rewarding, and fully aligned when I was in Corporate America; and then I outgrew it. Things change. Nothing is permanent. Thus, I had to have the cojones to be true to myself. We have the sacred responsibility to leverage our uniqueness. We need to understand what makes us TICK. What do we love? What are we good at doing? Make the choice to move toward alignment….as that is undeniably when we are at our most powerful.
    2. We need to cultivate AND foster strong character. Don’t we wish our political candidates this year would embrace this – as potential ‘leaders’ of the free world?! Net: our character is the bedrock of who we are as people and who we are as leaders. We have to have the courage to stand behind our values, our beliefs, and our integrity – regardless of the consequences. And no, this is not dependent upon ‘title or role’. I know in my life – and in my career – I follow those I respect regardless of their position, don’t you? And, those I follow – are those that have indisputable character. They are the ones I trust without any caveats.  Let’s choose to become the leader we would want to follow.
    3. Finally, regardless of our ‘position’ we need to maintain a leader’s mindset. And yes, leadership IS a mindset. It not granted to us by someone else. It is something we choose, we foster, and we grow. This mindset supports our life, our ability to execute in our jobs, and our ability to create a life of influence, contribution, and to help OTHERS achieve their dreams.

That is what leadership is.

And I will offer once last perspective, from Warren Bennis, one of my leadership role models, whose wisdom has served many in their quest to make a difference:

“No leader sets out to be a ‘leader’. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value – they become leaders. So the point is not to become a ‘leader’. The point is to become YOURSELF – to use yourself completely – all your skills, gifts, and energies – in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold NOTHING. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be and enjoy the process of becoming.”

And, please be reminded: YOU determine your life. YOU determine what ‘success’ is for you. The company for which you work, the person for whom you work, and the people with whom you work do NOT define this for you. Period.