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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

TITLES (The Three Ts Series)

(This is the second article in a series on “the three Ts”, the things that are not leadership. If you missed the intro article, check it out here.)

The first of the three Ts is TITLE. Title is when we mistake someone’s success for evidence that they are a good leader, or are capable of teaching us how to lead. That is, we think because this person has created an innovative product, run a big company, or talks about how much money they make, he or she must be a great leader and know what the secrets of leadership. This often takes the form of a famous CEO writing a book on leadership, or an online star creating a course on how to make money like him or her.

But the truth here is that lots of people who have reached a high level in an organization, or appear to have lots of success, aren’t actually good leaders. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own work or personal life. There are three general ways that this happens:

First, anyone who’s been in the corporate world, and often smaller organizations as well, knows of the person who’s high up in the organization but really shouldn’t be there. He or she is rude, hostile, incompetent, steals credit for ideas, or any other number of things. Just getting promoted doesn’t mean you’re qualified to lead, and we can’t tell the reality behind a person’s success from the leadership book they wrote or the Instagram pictures they post, so we assume they’re actually good people who know something about leadership. Reality and experience tells us we can’t trust positions as an indicator of leadership knowledge.

The second reason TITLES are misleading is that lots of people get lucky. We’ll talk more about this later, in TRAITS, but sometimes people are just in the right place at the right time. Maybe they have a great idea at a critical moment, or maybe they have an approach that works in a specific situation, but the underlying fact is that it wasn’t good leadership, it was something else entirely. This isn’t to take away from this person’s success, but their story doesn’t help us get struck by the same bolt of lightning. So we want to learn how to be good leaders, and if we go looking for ideas from people who were just lucky, then we’re going to be looking at the wrong things.

Finally, a lot of times people who claim to be successful are just lying. This isn’t always easy to admit, but it’s true. Like the folks I just talked about who are in a senior position but are actually terrible at working with others, some people make it look like they were successful when they really aren’t. It isn’t hard to rent a Ferrari or a mansion for your book cover photo. Sometimes this isn’t deliberate deception, but rather self-deception – the person has convinced himself that he understands leadership, but doesn’t really have a clue. Again, we need to peel back the façade to see what’s actually inside the person to decide if they can help us learn to be successful leaders or else we risk learning lessons that won’t help us improve.

TITLE is a classic way that we are led to believe the other two Ts (traits and tactics) are the path to success. Someone who has been successful says, “this is what I did or who I am” and we assume that he or she is telling the truth because of their position alone. The truth is, sometimes these folks aren’t really leaders at all, they’re not good at leading, they’re lucky or they’re even lying about their success. And, more importantly, many – nearly all, even – of the leaders who are ACTUALLY good leaders are doing the leadership process without knowing it. It’s unconscious, it’s not obvious to them, and so they are mistaken in attributing their success, again often to traits or tactics.

How does this hurt us?

TITLE is one of the most effective ways that we tell ourselves that leadership is an exclusive group – the magic of people who have succeeded. And then we tell ourselves, if we haven’t succeeded, we aren’t part of that group. THIS IS NOT TRUE, as I’ve just discussed, and it hides the reality that leadership is learned, and is a process, and is not demonstrated by a title or a promotion or lots of money or anything else other than BEING GOOD AT THE ACT OF LEADING – of working with others towards a common goal.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not taking away from people’s success. But outwards signs of success don’t answer the question we’re asking, which is how we – as individuals in our unique situation -- can be successful. The question we’re asking is how can we get good at leadership, how can we be deliberate in our practice of leadership so that we can reach whatever level of success we desire.

As a reminder of the big picture: once we exclude the things that aren’t leadership from our efforts, we’ll know where to focus our time and energy to produce true improvements in our leadership practice.

Next we’ll talk about the second T, TRAITS. This is a big one because it discourages us from taking risks as leaders. If you haven’t already, sign up for our weekly email so you don’t miss anything.

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