Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Title Doesn't Make You a Leader

I pondered just sending out the title of this post as a tweet – short, sweet (well not so much), and to the point.  Instead of just throwing out a sound bite into the social media abyss a detailed explanation is in order.  Now here’s why.  As of late I have been working with a greater number of teachers across the country on digital leadership and learning.  During the many conversations that ensue over the course of the workshop a common theme has developed and that is real change can only come from the adults that have a specific title such as Board of Education member, superintendent, other central office administrators, principals, supervisors, etc. Immediately upon hearing this I share stories of many “leaders” by title that I have come in contact with over the years, or observed from afar, that did anything but lead.  I would also bet that I am not the only one who feels this way either. 



Titles are often squandered that result in lost opportunities to transform organizations in positive ways.  Leaders by title alone often exhibit many defining characteristics such as egos, power trips, taking credit for the work of others, handing down mandates/directives, invisibility (i.e. never seen or around when needed), and insecurity when their ideas are challenged out in the open. They commonly tell others what to do without having done it themselves or assisting in the process.  I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Changes that are implemented by leaders by title are never sustained.  What scares me the most about leaders by title only is that they have the ability and power to inhibit the changes that are desperately needed.  The perception of the term leader needs to change and it begins with you.


Image credit: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Bwnk_S4CQAAkSyi.jpg:large

A title doesn’t automatically anoint one as a leader. Leadership is comprised of a dynamic mix of behaviors, mindset, and skills, which are used to move people where a leader wants them to be for the betterment of the organization.  In the case of schools, great leaders help others see the value of change by clearly articulating the why and how to build broad support through consensus. However, a real leader knows when to step in and make the hard decisions that have to be made having calculated the positive outcomes prior.  They also stand by these decisions in the face of adversity.

In my opinion all leaders have one thing in common – they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position.  This comes back to the motivation for this post.  Some of the best leaders I have seen during my years in education never had a title.   What they did have was the tenacity to act on a bold vision for change to improve learning for kids as well as overall school culture.  These people are overlooked because they don’t possess the necessary title that is used to describe a leader in a traditional sense.  

Make no mistake about the fact that many of you are surrounded by these people each day both physically and virtually. They are teachers, students, parents, and even administrators who have all taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools.These people don’t just talk the talk, but they walk the walk. They lead by example in what might be the most impactful way possible – modeling. These true leaders do not expect others to do what they are not willing to do. The best part is that these unsung heroes do not need a title to make a difference. They also don't need a title to be agents of change.


Image credit: Tom D'Amico

Everyone has the capacity to be a leader through his/her determination to be better for the greater common good.  Leaders choose to become so and are ultimately defined by his/her resolve to initiate change in the face of adversity. I believe that leadership is not innate, but rather learned through the actions that we choose to take as well as a critical analysis (both good and bad) of other leaders.  So the next time someone with a title is referred to as a leader think about what he or she has really done in his or her respective position to champion real change. Upon pondering that the realization might be that the true leader is actually you even though you don’t have the title.

20 comments:

  1. Please keep propelling this message about true leadership. People need it to be the "new normal". Thank you.

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  2. I think this is a topic that deserves to be talked about in much greater detail, and shared as widely as possible. I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and it has been a sticking point for me in my district. I believe the mindset that titles and degrees define the voices we "should listen to" is more pervasive than we might like to first admit.

    Thanks for your post, Eric. It's an important topic.

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  3. I appreciate you sharing your own development as you have moved into your new role. You make a great point. Most leaders never get titles because they are willing to do what others are not, and they get around roadblocks by not asking for permission -they just do what needs to be done.

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  4. It is very nice to hear you talk about what a leader should be and the fact that there are many leaders that lead each and everyday. I just hope that the ones who have title but do nothing do not get in the way those leading.

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  5. Thank you! Finally, someone else sees what I've seen for too long. Thank you for putting this out there Eric!

    Now I ask, how do we change this truth?

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    1. We change the truth by being the change we wish to see in education. This requires any educator to take action to improve teaching, learning, and leadership in ways that benefit students growing up in a digital world.

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    2. I forgot to mention this was well - MODEL SHARE MODEL SHARE....

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    3. Eric, bravo on another awesome post--"A title doesn't make you a leader." It is refreshing!

      But, I disagree with your 5/14/15 at 1:12 p.m. comment regarding "we change the truth..." The Truth is unchangeable! The problem with humanity is that it has been trying to change the truth, of course unsuccessfully, to reflect its reality when humanity should be changing its reality to reflect the truth. The only way to any meaningful progress in life is for humanity to align itself with the truth. As the saying goes, “the truth shall set us free.”

      Effective change in education calls for authentic and transparent leaders whose ideas and actions are rooted in integrity. This type of leadership should be the norm, not the exception.

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    4. Very interesting perspective, but don't you think truth is in the eye of the beholder?

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    5. Eric, please pardon my delayed response. Is it the truth that there are four seasons within a year, or is that in the eyes of the beholder? Is it also the truth that the earth was always round, even though such truth was not initially known to us. It is within our understanding, we were unaware of this fact. The truth, whether known or unknown, has always been and will always be the truth. The truth is unchangeable and everlasting.

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  6. Hi Eric! Your article really resonated with me as well as pushed me! I agree firmly that a "title doesn't automatically anoint one as a leader." I myself have always felt like more of an excellent follower and perhaps more a servant leader or leader by my example! I am a not as confident with my ability to promote change or action in others, so you've also challenged me to be more proactive!
    BTW - I am looking forward to hearing you speak in person and inspire other school leaders next week at NCDPI's PD for School Leaders! #DSTTech

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  7. Excellent article. I am very proud to have learned from really great principals who were great leaders and even a few of the ones who were not. Now, as I try to mentor new teachers I bring an attitude of helpfulness, sans the title and authority because I want to inspire new teachers to love and stick with the profession...feeling very encouraged by this post!

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  8. Excellent article. I am very proud to have learned from really great principals who were great leaders and even a few of the ones who were not. Now, as I try to mentor new teachers I bring an attitude of helpfulness, sans the title and authority because I want to inspire new teachers to love and stick with the profession...feeling very encouraged by this post!

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  10. Excellent and thought provoking article, Eric. I had to re read, "Everyone has the capacity to be a leader through his/her determination to be better for the greater common good. Leaders choose to become so and are ultimately defined by his/her resolve to initiate change in the face of adversity." Leadership starts with me. Every aspect of my day, every conversation, every life I touch, every email I send, every approach to a problem, every bit of my attitude defines the leader inside of me. I need to be more cognizant of practicing what I teach. I tell students every day that test taking strategies begin today, not the day of the test. We must practice our craft in order to be excellent at what we do. The same with leadership. We must practice everyday being good communicators, listeners, solution oriented, and develop the attitude that inspires change within ourselves now, not later. I am guilty of being annoyed with the absence of disaggregating data during PLC as I am the only member who plans data driven lessons. Often, I have thought that if I were the AP, the PLC would support best practices. True, but I also need to lead by example. Instead of keeping my data driven lessons to myself, I need to find another teacher - any teacher - who might be interested and share the process by which I effectively plan and teach. That's how change occurs - one person at a time. Thank you forvthis WOW moment!
    Dennita Miskimen

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    1. It seems that you are well on your way to being one amazing leader Dennita.

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  11. There's a wonderful slim book called You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader by Mark Sanborn that focuses on this topic. I highly recommend it! We need this message to get out to educators.

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  12. Often people are put into leadership positions without any support or guidance. I think this is especially true with principals. We become leaders by developing a vision, collaborating and sharing with other professionals, being in the trenches, having a growth mindset and always looking to innovate (to name a few). Thanks for the great post Eric!

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