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THEY DIDN’T NEED A TITLE TO BE LEADERS
(AND NEITHER DO YOU)
A famous politician once said, “The longer the title, the less important the job.” If that’s true, then Andrea Stoller has a very important job indeed. Just ask anyone who has had contact with her at the school where she has worked for the past fifteen years.
Andrea is not a licensed teacher. In fact, Andrea Stoller has no real “title” at all. What does she do? Nearly everything. She wears dozens of hats, including that of accountant, nurse, receptionist, secretary, admissions coordinator, supply coordinator, and counselor. And although she doesn’t have an official title, her favorite is the one that nearly 200 students give to her every year. They call her “Mom.”
I’m convinced that at the heart of every successful organization is a title-less person or persons just like Andrea.
One day, Andrea received a phone call informing her that one of the students, coming home from soccer practice, had been in a fatal car accident. When the teenage girl had gotten out of her car, an older man driving another car accidentally hit her, killing her instantly. The tragedy was devastating for the girl’s family and classmates, as well as for the young man she had been dating at the time, Simon.
After the accident, Simon sunk into a deep depression, avoiding people and falling behind in his schoolwork. It seemed as though he would become collateral damage in the tragedy. Andrea spotted the signs of his depression and attempted to befriend him. She offered to help him with his class work and tutor him, despite the fact that she didn’t have a teacher’s degree.
At graduation, everyone applauded when Simon walked to the dais to give the commencement address. In his speech, he specifically thanked Andrea for helping him to graduate. Today, the young man who nearly lost hope when he lost his high school sweetheart is a nationally recognized skateboarder. He regularly encourages other students, just as Andrea encouraged him.
Given Andrea’s stature at the school, it’s not surprising that many students choose to use one of their class electives to serve as office aides with her. Not only do they learn good office skills from her, but they know they will receive much-prized one-on-one time with her. She listens to them, advises them, and cares for them when they are sick or need help. In fact, she has such a kind, understanding heart that even parents have come to her with their own problems (divorce, issues with their kids, etc.).
One summer the local junior high burned down. As a result, the school where Andrea worked needed to create more space quickly to house extra students. The school decided to add several modular buildings to its campus.
With necessary last-minute construction and repairs to be done, Andrea and her husband worked late into the evening for weeks, staying until midnight at times, in order to be ready for the building inspectors so school could open on time.
Andrea even found a temporary location for those classes whose rooms were not yet approved by the time the school year started–the church she attends offered to let the school use their facility for several weeks. And, as a result of Andrea’s “negotiations,” the school paid very little to rent the facilities.
Andrea Stoller still doesn’t have a title. But she leads and influences others in significant ways every day.
WHAT GOOD IS A TITLE?
In today’s world, much is made of a person’s title. Yet little actual power exists in a title alone.
I once did a survey on my Web site about the reasons people had for acting as leaders. One woman replied, “I want to be Ruler of the Universe someday, and figure being a leader at my company is a good place to start.”
Her wry sense of humor underscores the appeal of titles; they suggest that one has achieved power, position, prestige, and privilege.
But are titles really that powerful? What does a title really confer?
An article in the New York Times described a corporate communications officer at Amtrak whose title had been changed from “Vice President” to “Chief.” But the title change wasn’t the result of a promotion. When the company reduced the number of VPs from eighty-ﬁve to ten, he was given the new title to make him feel better–he was one of the select few in the company to hold such a position. What kind of impact did the new title have on the people under him? “It meant absolutely nothing,” the new chief acknowledged.
Sometimes it is easier to give an employee an important-sounding title than pay him or her more (although, according to one survey, 85 percent of people would pass up a bigger title for a 10 percent increase in pay). Marc Cenedella, president and chief executive of TheLadders.com, an executive job-search site, says, “You’re never going to get hired based on your title, in and of itself. A job title’s more useful internally to your company and for how you feel you’re viewed.”
In other words, a title is not a job description. There are some things that a title can suggest, like having responsibility for others and getting results. It can’t, however, specifically define what a person does. Titles are broad brushstrokes.
In fact, when it comes to true power, titles are frequently misleading. Even at the level of CEO, a company head who is disliked can be all but ignored by those under her or him, while a respected employee with a lower title can wield significant influence on what others do and how quickly they do it.
It’s impossible for a title or an organizational chart to reflect all the many people who act as leaders or exert leadership throughout the organization. That is why I call such people “nontitled leaders.” They may or may not have direct responsibility to lead others, yet every day they influence and lead those around them.
The bottom line is, influence and inspiration come from the person, not the position.
AN ARMY OF LIONS
Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, said, “An army of deer led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions led by a deer.” That may be true, but I’ve come to believe that Philip missed the bigger point: An army of lions led by a lion is to be feared most of all, for it is unstoppable.
What’s more powerful than having strong, effective leadership at the top of your organization? Having an organization of lions where everyone leads.
At any Toyota plant, every employee on the line has the authority and responsibility to shut down the line at any time they feel necessary. Quality control and problem solving aren’t left to the titled managers. A woman who spots a problem is expected to lead by calling attention to it rather than allowing it to slip through and become an imperfection on a dealer’s lot or owner’s driveway.
My friend Susan told me a story about the best receptionist she ever met, a woman who served as the “front person” at the company where she worked. On her desk was a sign: RECEPTIONISTVILLE. POPULATION: 1. If you asked her what her title was, she’d respond, “Intergalatic Empress.” She took herself lightly, but her job seriously. She was a leader for the company as its first point of contact.
A cable TV installer I met in one of my seminars prided himself on the many value-added services he provided customers when he worked in their homes, including setting the clock to the correct time on their electronic devices and showing them how to use features that confused them. He didn’t consider himself an installer, but a “home-entertainment consultant.”
A volunteer at a nonprofit, filling in by answering the phones, took a phone call from a disgruntled donor. The donor felt unappreciated. The volunteer was able to communicate the gratitude of the organization for the donor’s previous support, thereby regaining his loyalty. In the end, the volunteer’s sincerity and belief in the work of the organization convinced the donor to increase his support.
LEADERSHIP LARGE AND SMALL
Many suffer from the misconception that leadership is about large, sweeping acts of history: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Churchill and his “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech during the Second World War.
Yes, those history-making events certainly marked extraordinary acts of leadership and courage. But what we don’t always realize is that each of our daily actions and efforts have significant impact, as well. Rosa Parks had no idea of the impact she would have on history when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Yet her actions and courage changed the course of our nation’s history.
When you do your job–any job–with initiative and determination to make a positive difference, you become a leader.
Sandra Dowling, the founder of Pappas School for homeless students in Phoenix, explains the power of individual leadership this way: “When a new teacher comes to the school, I tell them, ‘If you went into teaching to make a difference, I want to welcome you. But at this school, you won’t make a difference; you will be the difference.’”
AN INVITATION TO GREATNESS
If you’re big enough for your dream,
your dream isn’t big enough for you.
–Erwin Raphael McManus, pastor and author
WHO IS A LEADER?
One day, my assistant informed me over the intercom, “There is a Cadet Green on line two. I think you’ll want to talk to him.”
That was my introduction to Cadet Shawn Green, U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Air Force Academy had been in the papers a great deal lately for various challenges it was facing, and none of the recent news had been positive.
Shawn Green called me to tell me he had read my first book, The Fred Factor. He believed the book offered a message that needed to be shared at the Academy. So he took the initiative to call me out of the blue to ask if I would be willing to come and speak. “I’m just a person who wants to make things better,” he told me.
This exceptional individual was undaunted by the challenge of contacting people he didn’t know who he thought could help. He couldn’t afford to pay the people he was contacting to appear. In fact, he actually had to get official approval for us to appear for free. Cadet Green didn’t have a title, but he was certainly a leader.
As a result of his bold request, both bestselling author Stephen Covey and I came to speak to the graduating class of freshman cadets. Meeting so many of the best of the best who were determined to serve their country was a memorable experience, one that I will not soon forget.
People who lead–whether or not they have a title–strive to make things better.
We all want to have an impact on the world around us. No one wants to be blown sideways in life by forces they can’t control. Part of growing up is figuring out how much influence we have over our environment, from parents to friends, from school to careers.
Our choices in life have a huge impact on the kind of education we get, the kinds of jobs we land, the relationships we develop and become involved in, and the quality of the lives we live. The desire to influence the world around us is what real leadership is all about.
DO YOU THINK YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
When you first look in the mirror in the morning, do you say to yourself, “Today, I’m going to change the world!”?
And yet we do change history every day, not just for ourselves but for our families, communities, employers, and country. Some of the ways we effect change are significant: landing a huge account, raising money for charity, helping to coach a youth soccer team. Others are small: letting someone merge ahead of us in traffic, taking an interest in a colleague who needs someone to listen. But none are trivial.
I’m not suggesting that simple acts of courtesy in and of themselves constitute acts of leadership. Yet leaders, untitled or otherwise, realize the extraordinary impact they can have on others and the world around them. They consciously choose to exercise their abilities, skills, and knowledge to help make a difference.
WHAT IS IT YOU WANT?
Professor of sociology and speaker Tony Campolo claims that if you ask most parents what they want for their children, they will say they want their children to be happy.
Campolo goes on to say that he grew up in a home where his father didn’t care if he was happy. You see, his father wanted more for his children than just to be happy. He wanted each of them to be good, to be an ethical person who makes a positive contribution. Sometimes that requires hard work and self-sacrifice, putting another’s needs ahead of your own. These are things that might not, in the short term, make us “happy.” But they do help us to do good and make a difference. Being happy is enviable, but being good is truly admirable. It requires character, integrity, and perseverance.
Sometimes being “good” isn’t aiming high enough. As Erwin McManus, the pastor of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, said, “We spend so much time worrying about our kids being good–not breaking the rules, getting into trouble, and basically behaving–that we often forget to invite them to be great.”
In fact, I define true leadership as “an invitation to greatness that we extend to others.” There is a catch, though. We can’t give what we don’t have. We can’t extend an invitation we haven’t already accepted.
At a recent convention, a member of the association sponsoring the event volunteered to work as backstage manager and assist with everything that happened behind the scenes at the general sessions. Because Rick was busy preparing between general sessions, he gave up the chance to attend most of the sessions during the conference. He didn’t receive any payment, other than the appreciation of the association leaders, and he still paid a full registration fee for his attendance.
He was an example of one of the many who serve as untitled leaders, who handle the necessary but often unglamorous jobs that need to be done.
Volunteers for important or high-profile tasks are never in short supply. While I don’t want to shortchange the importance of “the big show,” I am even more impressed by the leaders who know what must be done behind the scenes to make the big show happen. They take on difficult and time-consuming assignments not because they want to be praised or noticed but just because those tasks have to be done. As a result, everyone benefits.
The reality is that we all work “backstage” in our lives at times. Real leaders bring the same commitment to excellence to whatever they do, whether on the stage or behind it.