The vice president of a multinational technology company faced a challenge: he had a mission-critical project he needed someone on his team to handle. After careful thought and consideration, he approached a direct report who was considered an up-and-comer. This individual had demonstrated potential.
The director and potential project lead met. After thoroughly explaining the project and the kind of leadership he needed, the v.p. extended an invitation to his colleague to lead the project.
After a brief pause, the aspiring leader responded, “I assume you’ll make me a director if I take this on.”
This unexpected response caused the v.p. to pause. What were the real motivations of the employee? Was this a person driven by the need to contribute, or the need to gain? After brief consideration he explained that a title change didn’t go with the invitation and that furthermore, given the employee’s concern, the offer to lead the project was being withdrawn.
It was back to the drawing board. After more deliberation, the division head came up with an alternative. The name that came to mind was a woman in his department who had also shown great promise. On the surface, she seemed driven by different motives.
He approached her with slight apprehension after his previous meeting and extended the same offer, adding only one thing: “I want you to know, however, that if you accept this challenge and succeed, I won’t automatically make you a director.”
The candidate didn’t even hesitate. “That’s all right,” she said, “I don’t need a title to be a leader.”
…but not everybody leads well.
I like to ask audience members how many consider themselves leaders. As you’d expect, not every hand in the room goes up. But I then pose this question: How many of you have directly influenced the outcome of an interaction with a team member, a customer or a vendor? After only the briefest consideration, everyone raises his or her hand.
Leadership is influence. Good leadership positively influences an outcome. Ineffective or bad leadership either negatively influences the outcome, or has no affect at all.
Phillip of Macedonia, 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.” I’ve come to believe that while Phillip was on to something important, he missed the bigger point: An army of lions led by a lion is to be feared most of all.
When I work with clients I can identify those formally charged with leading others from the org chart. What I can’t as easily identify are all those who exert leadership throughout the organization, those that I’ve come to call “non-titled leaders.” They may or may not have responsibility to lead others, yet every day they affect those they work with and those they do business with in the marketplace.
Why has so much attention been given to titled leaders and so little to non-titled leaders?
I think that the first reason is that there is a general lack of awareness about non-titled leaders. Most often we think of those people as simply employees. While we want them to do a good job—and are delighted if they are truly committed, passionate and skilled about their work—it never crosses our minds that they spend some percentage of each day leading others.
Second, leadership has been mystified to the point that we think it hard enough to teach formally-charged leaders to lead. How are we to teach leadership to those who aren’t technically “leaders”?
And finally, there are limited educational and development resources within an organization. Years ago I read that roughly 80% of training was spent on managers, illustrating well the 80/20 principle. That left 80% of employees a mere 20% of the budget to develop their skills. With such little reservoir to draw from, teaching just basic skills takes top priority.
What I find perhaps most interesting of all is that non-titled leaders may not think of themselves as leaders nor even aspire to lead. They simply want to do the best that they can in their corner of the world and that includes positively impacting and influencing others. While the chemist who discovers a new drug formulation that benefits thousands may be exhibiting a form of R & D leadership, I’m referring to those who directly or indirectly influence what others do. True leadership is not abstract: it is about getting others to do better and be better.
Do you know who the non-titled leaders in your organization are? Do you make available basic leadership training so that all employees will be better equipped to positively influence others—customers, colleagues and vendors—and thus influence outcomes? Do you reward and recognize those people who lead not out of compliance to their job description but out of commitment to excellence?
These are starter questions. In coming issues of Leadership Lessons, I’ll explain how to create leaders at every level, and share the philosophy and practice of creating an army of lions.
If you have a story about a non-titled leader (yourself or someone else) who has or continues to significantly influence his or her organization, please submit it for consideration for my next book, You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader. If your story is included, you’ll receive a free, autographed copy of the book when it is released in 2006. Respond here to submit your story.