On Leading Without a Title

How can you lead without a title? That’s the topic I was recently asked to speak on at a leadership event for college and high school students. What does it look like to lead from the middle of the pack?

I’ve served in a variety of roles over the last decade. I’ve been a dean of a college. I’ve served as a Vice President. I’ve been a lead pastor for a church campus. I’ve had my fair share of titles.

Recently I transitioned to being a faculty member to focus on teaching and writing in a liberal arts setting. Moving away from a formal leadership position has given me a good chance to reflect on what leadership looks like from a variety of angles. I’m writing this from the middle of the pack.

In this post I hope to convince you that waiting for a title to lead is a waste of time. Titles are overrated. They don’t guarantee leadership at all. Here’s a few things to think about leading without a title.

First, everyone has a title.

I may no longer serve on executive leadership like I did at Southern Seminary, but I still have a title. I’m a professor. That means I’m leading students. I’m leading a classroom. That is a pretty massive leadership opportunity, in my opinion.

You might not have the title of boss, or supervisor, or CEO, but you still have a number of titles. Son, daughter, brother, student, intern, employee . . . these are all titles that not only mean you serve under leadership but also that you have the opportunity to exert leadership.

Are you leading in the roles God has placed you in? Why would he promote you if you aren’t at leading in the capacity in which you have been placed for this season of life. If you are faithful with small things you will eventually be trusted with more. Learn to produce in whatever role you are in now.

Second, no one’s title makes them a leader.

To be honest, leadership titles can be deceptive. There are plenty of people with leadership titles who aren’t leaders at all. In fact, weak leaders will often hide behind their titles. John Maxwell describes this as “positional leadership” in contrast with leadership that is based on personhood. Instead of motivating and inspiring others, positional leaders resort to the lowest and least productive level of leadership: bean counting and micromanaging.

You see, having a title isn’t a guarantee of leadership. Leading is far more than crossing t’s and dotting i’s. It’s more than “running a tight ship,” to borrow a tired management cliché.

To use the ship metaphor, a tight ship, whatever that expression was originally intended to mean, means very little if the ship doesn’t go somewhere (hopefully somewhere important). Leadership is influence, painting a vision of what can be, what should be, what could be, and then motivating others to willingly go the extra mile, serve beyond their job descriptions, put in the extra time, go the extra mile, to join you in the mission.

Don’t be deceived in thinking getting a leadership title will make you a leader. If you don’t develop the ability to motivate, inspire, engender loyalty, create momentum, if you don’t learn to do these things now, then it doesn’t matter how many titles you acquire throughout your career.

Third, anyone can be a leader no matter what their title.

I remember asking the senior pastor in my first full-time ministry job about titles. “What should I have the students call me?” I asked. I had worked at a church in seminary where students called leaders “brother.” His response was simple. If you’re banking on a title for them to see you as a leader then you are focused on the wrong thing.

I get it that a lot of leaders want to be called by their titles. I can appreciate that. But I also think formal titles can be obstacles. When someone I know well doesn’t invite me to call them by their first name I simply assume they purely want a professional relationship, they don’t want a friendship.

That’s an example of how a title can distance you from people you want to lead. You don’t need a title to be a leader. In fact a leadership title will place you, at times by necessity, in a removed relational position from those you lead.

Some of the greatest leaders I know are ones who were more concerned with influence, and motivating people, then with what people called them. Why get so worked up about titles when a lot of great leaders don’t even use their well-earned and well-deserved titles? Could it be that leadership is more than a title?

My point is this, if you wait to get a title to start leading then you will never lead. Everyone has a title. No one is a leader because of their title. And anyone can be a leader regardless of their title.

So, stop waiting. Start leading. Learn to influence others towards a common vision. If that ends up earning you a leadership title in time, don’t let it go to your head. Leaders are first and foremost servants. And that’s probably the greatest leadership title you will ever receive.