Leading Without a Title

Joan MacLeod Heminway
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

What’s in a title? When it comes to leadership the answer is “it depends.” A title—President, Chair, Chief Executive, or (for those of us in academia) Chancellor, Provost, Dean, or Head—signifies meeting the criteria for appointment to that post. Those criteria may or may not include the effective assessment of leadership attributes—or even leadership potential. Nevertheless, many of us routinely refer to people with titles as leaders, and when we populate panels and invite keynote speakers to leadership and professional development events, we look for people with the most impressive titles in the relevant industry or field.

So, if titles are imperfect indicators of leadership, what is a better signal of leadership? The fundamental answer is seemingly simple: the existence of followers—a following. Peter Drucker has averred that “[t]he only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” The term “followers” can mean different things to different people. As used here, it does not refer to people who are obedient or compliant merely because of their respect for a person’s authority or because of institutional structures or norms that dictate obedience or compliance. Rather, followers are those who are empowered, inspired, or influenced by another to take action.

If a following of this kind denotes leadership, then anyone—title or no title—can be a leader. We may become leaders consciously or unconsciously. But each of us has the capacity to use native or acquired knowledge, experience, talents, and charisma to garner followers and assume the mantle of leadership.

And it is important to recognize that leadership is a mantle. Again, the words of Peter Drucker are meaningful: “Leadership is not rank, privileges, titles, or money. It is responsibility.” Leaders assume obligations. Being a leader involves the cultivation and nurturing of trust relationships that are likely to be challenged in major and minor ways. The integrity of those trust relationships through the inevitable tribulations is a mark of sustained leadership.

Are you ready to assume the joys and responsibilities of leadership? If so, flex those leadership muscles! Cultivate durable trust relationships that catalyze constructive action. And don’t forget to enjoy the fruits of your leadership journey—closer connections with people you care about and meaningful progress on important issues. But understand that you do not need a title to do any of that!

One thought on “Leading Without a Title

  1. So enjoyed this, Professor Heminway! Asurion has developed a series of training programs on “Everyday Leadership” that emphasizes this very topic; I always enjoy them.


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