by Steve Adubato, PhD

Joe is an executive who is in the process of hiring a well-educated, high-potential, young woman named Jane to a key position in his organization. As Joe is explaining what the job entails, Jane asks, “What exactly will my title be?” Somewhat taken aback, Joe says that he hasn’t given it much thought and asks what title she thought would be best. Without hesitation Jane says, “vice president of operations.”

Joe tries to explain to Jane that in such a small organization the “vice president” title doesn’t really mean that much. Jane responds, “How many people will be reporting to me?” Joe asks why that matters and Jane replies, “I wanted to make sure people know that I am in charge. My last job didn’t make that clear and it really frustrated me as a manager.” Where do we start with a case like this?

Leaders are not about titles or where you fit into an organizational chart. Leaders step up, take the initiative and make a difference regardless of what they are paid or what it says on their business card. Some questions about leadership and titles.

Q—Don’t organizational charts tell us who reports to whom?

A—On paper, yes. But real life is more complex. Organizational charts are designed to avoid confusion, and sometimes clarify reporting relationships. However, to truly gauge the influence in any organization, you are better off monitoring daily communication that influences relationships, which in turn impacts who does what and why.

Q—If titles are not a direct indication of leadership, why are so many of us so obsessed with them?

A—Because titles have come to mean something in the eyes of others. If your title says “vice president,” the assumption is you must be important. Yet, you may have no ability to influence decisions, which in turn means you aren’t a leader.

Further, organizations often give out titles in lieu of money. People with impressive titles can tell their friends how important they are without having to demonstrate what they actually get done. Real power, influence and leadership goes well beyond titles.

Q—Can you provide some examples of how someone without a title can exert great leadership?

A—The list is endless. The widows of the 9/11 victims had no individual titles, but they were influential leaders in getting congress and the White House to shape policy in a particular direction. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.) influence government decision-making and public attitudes about drinking and driving. That’s leadership, but once again not related to any individual titles.

There are individuals who start up fundraisers for good causes, such as a family in need. That is about persuading and influencing others to participate and contribute, which is all about leadership. In the workplace, leadership is about people who see a problem as an opportunity to step up and move colleagues in a particular direction. They are influential not because anyone reports to them or because of their title. Rather, it is because of their conviction, passion and commitment to getting something done and influencing others to join in.

Q—What communication skills are needed to be a great leader regardless of your title?

A—Passion. Beyond passion, great leaders must have a powerful message that they communicate in a concise fashion. They also create an environment that makes people feel good about what they are doing and defines “winning” in a way that everyone feels a part of. They listen and are open-minded even though they have a particular direction in mind. Finally, when the job is complete, they proactively thank everyone and acknowledge their participation rather than taking credit themselves. None of this is about titles. It all has to do with people.