In reality, having a title, higher rank or position of authority is often loosely related to leadership: you are expected to lead as the in-charge, but more often than not, being in-charge does not determine the quality of leadership. Hence, it is possible for someone to be a great leader and yet never run an organization. Conversely, that person can also run an organization and be a terrible leader.
Even so, many still mistakenly think that titles correlate to leadership skills—that generally, having a position of authority meant quality leadership.
Though having a title typically meant more experience in leading and managing in that position, it does not necessarily mean that you require a title in order to lead.
It is due to the misunderstanding that we blur the lines between leadership and bureaucratic power—both are vastly different things.
In a conversation about leadership, we must assume we have no power. Without the ability to sanction those who are unwilling to do our bidding, we can only be called a leader when we are able to rally others without any authority.
Sure, the CEO is a leader. The director is a leader. But if we must exercise our position of authority, then it’s less leader, more bureaucrat.
The purest form of leadership is insanely difficult to come by—not many can wield zero authority and yet rally many to work for their cause.
We need to lead ourselves first
Leadership is not a commodity: it cannot be bestowed upon or given. Yet, many aspiring to be leaders often looks towards a position of influence, thinking that it might be a catalyst for growth. The reality is, great leaders are leaders from within. They overcame passivity, took control of their lives and held the steering wheel.
When a leader is unwilling to lead themselves, they will fail to rally others.
While positions of authority have their inherent value, true leaders start leading without it.
Many mistakenly place too much value on a position that bestows leadership. While positions of authority have their inherent value, true leaders start leading without it. Understanding that you have a responsibility now is a more important step than to assume an elevated post.
The best way to think about it is this: what would be an ideal leader you would like to be under? Seeking out a role model or working towards an ideal image can be the first step towards overcoming passivity.
By leading ourselves, we will experience profound changes.
Think critically—don’t be a critic
When we lead ourselves, we desire answers. We have many questions about ourselves and others that we are curious to know the answer to. We ask more than we speak, harnessing genuine curiosity to point people towards solutions.
Thinking critically and being critical are separate things. Leaders don’t always win arguments. While they can express disagreement, they choose to fair, unbiased and objective.
Anyone can criticize. Leaders, on the other hand, think critically on how to improve and change course towards excellence. They choose to use their disagreement as a point of contention rather than as a commandment. For them, they are interested in the solution rather than proving their point: they’d much rather solve the problem than to have everyone agree with something entirely wrong, simply because the leader said so.
There are fundamental differences but there ‘leaders’ who are habitually critical. With a position of authority, it is often difficult to distinguish between giving an alternative perspective and stuffing their point down peoples’ throats.
Aspiring leaders need to start exercising such control. It is okay to be wrong: the priority is always about solving the problem and improving the situation. Ironic as it is, leading ourselves should never lead to it being ourselves.
Accept responsibility instead of credit
When we complete a project, most would want recognition. Appreciation feels good: it keeps us going, engages us and builds rapport.
However, great leadership is not about credit—while we will still want to be recognized for the work that we are doing and the impact we are having, not being in charge means that we value the responsibility of leadership more than any recognition.
Responsibility can weigh a ton and not many like to shoulder burdens like that when they could be easily given to someone else.
Leading in charge means that we take responsibility for the controllable and the uncontrollable.
However, leading in charge means that we take responsibility for the controllable and the uncontrollable. Regardless of whether we are officially in charge or not, we step up and embrace it.
When we are not in charge, we accept responsibility instead of credit. Though we remain aware of the credit and recognition that can come from carrying out our responsibilities, we place more emphasis on executing the task as a leader than at the selfish end goals.
With the myriad leadership programs, management trainee programs, courses, and books, there are still people leading terribly even when they are holding positions of authority.
Though not everyone has the privilege or luck to have a poor leader ousted, choosing to accept unfairness and start leading ourselves can eventually change things—leaders are not people who occupy certain roles that come with authority.
Leadership cannot be given: it is something that we must nurture within ourselves. When people mistakenly believe that wielding authority equates to leadership, they give rise to bureaucracy and thus, leadership loses meaning.
Without a position of authority, how many people can you start rallying today for a cause?
The answer is always one, because the first person you can always rally is yourself.