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 wor