A successful leader must navigate the many contexts of leadership carefully and effectively to appropriately respect any actual or perceived honor of rank while, at the same time, being inclusive and appreciative of the talents and efforts of all.
Joan MacLeod Heminway
Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law
I never fully understood the highly publicized flap about referring to our current First Lady as Dr. Jill Biden.
Maybe that’s because I work in an educational setting in which many of my colleagues have Ph.D., Ed.D., and other doctoral degrees outside the medical sciences. I have served on Ph.D. and Ed.D. committees. I know what it takes to earn a doctoral degree. I disagree with the author of the December 2020 Wall Street Journalopinion column that the value of a doctorate “has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally.” Terminal degrees of all kinds—including non-medical doctoral degrees—signify prominence in a field.
Or maybe I fail to see the issue with Dr. Biden’s use of her earned academic moniker because I grew up knowing a number of Ph.D. degree holders who used the prefix “Dr.” professionally and in community settings. The mother of the best man at my wedding held a doctoral degree in special education. Her husband was an M.D. We called them the “Drs. Falk.” And I was proud that a number of my public high school teachers (some of whom, like Dr. Biden, also taught at a local community college) had Ph.D. or Ed.D. degrees. We referred to them as “doctor” in the high school classroom. It was no big deal.
Yet, I also have come to understand that referring to people by their titles (whether indicative of academic or professional longevity, accomplishment, or influence) can be misleading, awkward, stratifying, or even disparaging of those without a title. It depends on circumstance. A successful leader must navigate the many contexts of leadership carefully and effectively to appropriately respect any actual or perceived honor of rank while, at the same time, being inclusive and appreciative of the talents and efforts of all.
If we are able and willing to be attentive students, life teaches many leadership lessons. Our personal, academic, and professional histories shape how we treat people generally. My own life journey provides an example. Some of it may parallel yours.
From a young age, I was taught to respect age, achievement, and authority.
Deference to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older family members was expected. My parents admonished me for insubordination. Apologies for transgressions were required. I remember holding my tongue, even as an adult, when my elders said hurtful things to me or in my presence—things I wanted to rebut; things that deserved rebuke.
Regard for adults outside the family was also obligatory. I remember one incident of personal transgression involving my elementary school music teacher (who, as I now recall with some degree of ironic amusement, held a doctoral degree). Overall, however, I knew my place. My dad is an army veteran. He taught me to use ma’am and sir as well as mister and misses when referring to adults. Although I was permitted to call certain of my parents’ friends “Aunt” and “Uncle” using their first names, otherwise, the use of first names for adults outside the family was not acceptable.
Although chronological age is a somewhat crude measure of an individual’s power and significance, the behavioral and communication rules I was taught—the stuff of societal norms—made social interactions relatively easy when I was a child. I understood the hierarchy. The adults had authority; they had status. I did not.
My high school and college jobs did not challenge my sense of security about either my position in the workplace or how to address my co-workers. All of that changed, however, when I started working in law offices (an in-house legal department the summer before law school and a private law firm starting in the spring semester of my first year). The order of command lacked clarity. Yes, I knew who my supervisor was. I knew who the General Counsel of the corporation and the other lawyers in the office of the General Counsel were. I knew who the law firm’s partners and associates were. But . . . what to call these people? They managed my work, but we also worked together as a team, elbow to elbow. Some encouraged me to call them by their first names. Others did not. No one had prepared me for this.
The tension that I felt then has recurred many, many times since. I have found that is resolved situationally. Some circumstances involve relatively clear behavioral norms. Others involve conflicted norms that involve untangling issues of positionality or intersectionality—matters that are critically important to the effective, equitable leadership of diverse populations. I have learned to live and work with the uncertainty of it all, failing my way toward (I hope) success.
Over the years, I have come to understand a simple truth in situations involving collaborative leadership. There is a limited place, if any, for titles and hierarchies in that setting. Collaborative leaders connect and engage people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This involves abandoning rank and power. Yet, a collaborative leader must also manage that process, which optimally involves the use of influence, rather than authority. The following summary from a 2011 Harvard Business Review article makes these points nicely:
Leaders today must be able to harness ideas, people, and resources from across boundaries of all kinds. That requires reinventing their talent strategies and building strong connections both inside and outside their organizations. To get all the disparate players to work together effectively, they also need to know when to wield influence rather than authority to move things forward, and when to halt unproductive discussions, squash politicking, and make final calls.
Differences in convictions, cultural values, and operating norms inevitably add complexity to collaborative efforts. But they also make them richer, more innovative, and more valuable. Getting that value is the heart of collaborative leadership.
That complexity is at the heart of the tension that I feel between honoring achievement and status and treating team members equitably.
The same is true for servant leadership. Servant leaders lift up those they lead. The use of titles can detract from the trust, empathy, and individual empowerment critical to effective servant leadership. As one article published to the Society for Human Resource Management website observes, “servant leaders are consistent in showing encouragement and humility with an egalitarian attitude.” That egalitarian attitude requires the abandonment of team leadership and member titles and hierarchies in the boots-on-the-ground leadership enterprise, even though oversight, coordination, and overall management of the team will require a recognition of the leader’s stature and governing influence.
I remember one day when, shortly after our current dean first became the dean of the College of Law, I greeted him jovially—and admittedly with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude—using his decanal title. He responded in a friendly, but similarly irreverent, manner by saying the equivalent of “come off it” or “cut it out.” I understood him well in that moment. The stratification indicated by my greeting was uncomfortable to him because of the respect he had for me. My step was a bit lighter after that, knowing that I was recognized and appreciated. He had empowered me to continue to lead from where I stood. The different titles that appropriately labeled us in other settings (for example, when I introduce him to others) would not be an impediment to our continued work with each other.
I aspire to create that same environment of empowerment in my constructive working relationships with others. That typically involves abandoning titles in those work settings. In taking that approach, I do not mean to abandon respect for my colleagues’ achievements or status. I admire them for all that. But I do aim to create an egalitarian environment in which all voices feel safe and valued and are heard. This undoubtedly will be a lifelong task. And I may get it wrong more than I get it right as I stumble through leading as a lawyer. But (as tennis legend Arthur Ashe is often credited with saying) success is a journey, not a destination, right?