At the church in the village where I live is a plaque which commemorates Thomas Howard Esquire, son of the Honourable Sir Robert Howard, and grandson of the Right Honourable Thomas, Earl of Berkshire, who died on the fourth day of April, 1701. I’ve often wondered why Thomas Howard (assuming that it was him who chose his own memorial, as was common in those days) felt it important that people knew him not as who he was himself, but rather as the son of an Honourable Baronet and, more importantly, the grandson of a Right Honourable Earl. To be fair, his father was a famous playwright but I’ve always felt curious that even in death Thomas Howard seemed to be conscious of titles. Perhaps he was grumpy that the principle of primogeniture had ennobled his cousins but left him to make his own way with no handle to hold onto.
The same is true in business with many organisations still stratified along hierarchical lines, meaning that titles and status have become very important. Reward packages, holiday entitlements, engagement survey’s, and even desk space, all seem to be determined by grade or a work level. To a certain extent some form of graduated authority is inevitable, but there are some big issues at play. Firstly, some people start to believe in their own status. They begin to define themselves by their job title and find it difficult to recognise their real self beyond what it says on their business card. These are the people most resistant to change. They have spent twenty years investing in their career, missing school plays and anniversaries as they make their way up the greasy pole. The last thing that they are going to do is to accept new ways of working that threaten their access to the executive washroom. These are the people who are being challenged by both the arrival of generation Y with their new views and values and also by social media which allows information (after all, knowledge used to be power) to flow horizontally across organisations rather than vertically through layers of management.
There is, however, one fundamental truth which many people in business today miss: you do not need a title to be a leader. Indeed, you don’t need people to be a leader. Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It is not about doing things, executing things, and generating things. It is about nurturing and creating the climate in which things can be done. True leadership doesn’t need titles or status. True leadership comes from being authentic and knowing who you are. With that comes a powerful sense of knowing what’s important and what, like titles, isn’t. And if you are true to yourself then people will gravitate towards you. And that really is leadership.