I’m tired. I’m tired of people referring to people who have titles as leaders.
There are people in the world who hold titles such as president, vice president, executive director, manager and the like. It’s common, it seems, to refer to them as “leaders.” But if you go back to the definition of leadership, you see that not all people who have titles are leaders. And furthermore, you don’t have to hold a title to be a leader.
It doesn’t matter whether the person who holds a title is elected or appointed to the position; it has nothing to do with whether a person is a leader.
So what do leaders do? My favorite leadership book is “The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. After conducting research for many decades all over the world and in incredibly diverse organizations, they assert that leaders exhibit five different behaviors.
First, leaders model the way. They know the things they value and set the example of how to act in the organization. They have integrity, so they do the right thing. It’s clear to those who work with them what is important to the leader. There is no confusion.
Second, leaders inspire a shared vision. In interviews for titled positions, candidates often will be asked what their vision for the organization is. A leader knows she cannot create a vision for a unit by herself. She must speak with and listen to those she works with to create a vision that is shared by her colleagues and is inspirational in nature. She must have some ideas about what the future can look like, but must enlist the assistance of others in crafting what the unit’s future can be. Then she shares it with stakeholders and encourages them to buy in.
The third behavior a leader exhibits is challenging the process. Those who work with me know this is my strength. A leader needs to ask “why” and “why not” often and search for ways to make the organization better. Organizations that don’t adapt and change ultimately will die. Leaders know they must figure out what is working and what’s not, and take some risks in creating new ways to address things. Many would say it is high risk, high reward—and that can be true—but it can also be low risk, low reward. Leaders must challenge the status quo.
Fourth, leaders enable others to act. Leaders know they cannot do everything by themselves, so they foster collaboration. They also understand succession planning. Leaders will leave organizations, so as part of their role, they prepare colleagues to step into their shoes at some point. Too many titled people resist this, because they view it as creating competition for their job. Hogwash.
Lastly—and the behavior I see as an opportunity for every person I know—leaders encourage the heart. By this, Kouzes and Posner mean that leaders recognize the work of colleagues and celebrate when individuals and organizations win. People like to have their contributions acknowledged and celebrated, whether in public or private settings. This is a growth area for most of us. Shouldn’t people just do their jobs? Well, yes, but think about how you have felt when someone celebrated your success or thanked you for doing something that was “just your job.” I bet you wanted to work that much harder.
So, circling back to my peeve about calling the head of your organization a leader. Does he exhibit all, or even most, of these five behaviors? If he does, the moniker of “leader” is appropriate. But if not, please just refer to him as president—or whatever his title is—so you don’t confuse the rest of us about whether he’s really a leader or not.
And remember: no matter your title in the organization, you can be a leader if you exhibit the five behaviors discussed here. Which of the behaviors will you focus on to improve your leadership skills?
Leadership can be learned, and we definitely need more leaders.
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.