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Book Review-The Titleless Leader: How to Get Things Done When You’re Not in Charge

Being the president of your own company has its advantages. However, it doesn’t mean that you always get your way or that you’ve always got the power to tell others what to do. There are committees, boards, and other places where you’re not in charge. In my case there are also clients who are – in effect – my manager. They are the people that I serve and I’m rarely in a position to “tell” them what to do. Though I can advise them – I can’t make things happen.

It’s for this reason that The Titleless Leader: How to Get Things Done When You’re Not in Charge is interesting. It’s interesting for me for every time that I’ve tried to get a steering committee to move. It’s interesting for every time that I’ve not managed to get all of the cats herded for a project. It seems like I’m often faced with needing to get things done when I’m not in charge.

Three Keys

If you want to develop respect and trust in others – so that they’re not only willing but enthusiastic about supporting your goals, how do you do it? Here are three keys that were suggested:

  1. Give Trust First.
  2. Effectively Communicate.
  3. Show Up.

Let’s look at these keys in more detail.

Give Trust First

As I mentioned in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and in my book reviews on trust (Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma), trust is reflexive. The more you give it, the more you get it. Trust is, I have come to believe, essential for getting things done. I’ve said that trust is the lubricator of economies – and that includes the economy of personal respect. If someone trusts in your character you have the ability to leverage that trust to get things done.

As a reminder, trust isn’t a single thing. It’s situationally dependent. Your baby sitter may be trusted to watch your son but not do your taxes. Similarly you may trust your accountant to do your taxes but not watch your son.

Trust also takes time to build and only a moment to destroy. Titleless leaders know how to build trust – and how to recover from the inevitable betrayal. Anyone who trusts deeply will eventually run into some level of betrayal whether they betrayed the trust of someone else or whether someone has betrayed them.

Effectively Communicate

Brilliant marketing is the ability to express clearly and with clarity concepts that bring a market to action. The titleless leader has to harness the power to clarify their communication in their everyday communication – not just at the culmination of their advertising campaign. Titleless leaders communicate effectively their intent and what they’re asking of others.

Humans are imaginative creatures. We believe that we’re psychic in that we know what others are thinking. Even Paul Ekman who developed mechanisms for codifying facial micro expressions cautions that you may know the emotion that someone is feeling but not why they’re feeling it. (See Social Engineering, Trust Me, and Emotional Awareness for more about Ekman.) As humans we have a need to make sense of our world. When we leave gaps in information in what we communicate with others they unconsciously try to fill it. In some cases with marketing we leave gaps in our communication to allow the consumer to fill the gap with positive information. However, with individual communications it’s dangerous to leave gaps in our communication particularly when it comes to intent.

Our intent, why we’re doing something, is hugely important and also under communicated. As children we learned to ask “Why?” We learned that there was reason behind things. We learned that people had an intent. However, so often we guard our intent. We don’t share with others what we’re trying to accomplish and why. However, from the point of view of a titleless leader, this is a critical error. The more that people can understand our intent the more likely they are to identify with it. Intent is generally a higher aspirational purpose. If I intend to create the best organization for the creation of quality content then there’s something that everyone can be a part of – and a reason to try hard to get things done.

One of my sons joined marching band. It was an intense strain on him and on the family. He was marching 8-10 hours a day six days a week over the summer. One night he was so hungry he ate about 2.5 lbs of meat and at the same time he was losing weight. So why did he do it? The answer was simply to be a part of the best marching band in the state. They didn’t win but the intent to create the absolute best marching band in the state was the intent behind the coaches – and why the children joined the band and accepted the grueling work.

However, just knowing where a leader is going isn’t enough to get everyone there. Studies have proven that if you want students to get vaccinated, it’s better to give them a map to the health center than it is to explain the effects and impacts of what you’re being vaccinated against. Just knowing that something is bad for you isn’t enough for you to take action – you have to know how to take action. You have to get the barriers out of the way (See Demand) One of the barriers is for folks to understand what you’re asking them to do – and if they don’t know how, how to do it.

Generally the principle that people want autonomy (See Drive) applies and you shouldn’t tell folks how to do something – unless they don’t know how to do it and are looking for a way. So it’s important to test whether the folks you’re leading want and need more details about how to do something.

Show Up

There’s more to being present than dragging your body in. For most of us it’s hard for us to be our real selves. We’re concerned about how others will perceive us. We don’t want to be vulnerable (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy)

One of the challenges that I’ve had over the years is that I tend to scare people. I don’t mean that I wear a scary mask and jump out from behind objects. I mean that sometimes my directness and my awareness of who I am is unsettling to others. A good friend confided in me that she had spoken to others about how I was perceived by them.

My desire to show up fully was unsettling and scary to people I met (unbeknownst to me) because it wasn’t something that they were used to – and in some cases not something that they were capable of. So what was it that I was doing? Well, part of it was the self-confidence I had.

One of the things that gets me in trouble is the line between self-confidence and arrogance is razor thin and in the eye of the beholder. John Dickson in Humilitas said, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” That is having the self-confidence to be convicted about something can be misperceived as arrogance. This is especially true when the conviction is about what you do – and don’t – want in life.

Carol Dweck in Mindset says, “True-self confidence is ‘the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.'” That is to say that truly having self-confidence allows for the possibility to be wrong. As paradoxical as it sounds, the more you begin to believe that you’re a good and useful person the easier it is to accept that you’re not perfect and can be wrong – without being bad.

To me this is about the integrated self-image that allows for both the bad and the good. (See Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries for more on integrated self-images.) You have to have some level of confidence to be able to be vulnerable enough to accept that you may not be right.

Put Out the Fire

Right or In Relationship

The titleless leader knows that there is a truth to being in this world. That truth is that you can either be “right” or you can be in a relationship. You can either value that people believe you have the right answers – or you can value the relationship with the other person more than being right. Consider how you are with a best friend. You may disagree with them and their perspective but rarely do you try to impose your will on them. More often than not you accept they believe differently than you do and don’t worry about that trivial thing of righteousness.

Valuing Relationships

Scorched earth. That’s what they call it when the weapons used leave the ground scorched. It’s when nothing is left standing. No people survived – but neither did dignity, decorum, or respect. I have certainly been guilty of scorched earth in my career and in my personal life. There were times when the object that I was arguing with someone about was of greater importance than the people.

A former pastor of mine once harshly criticized a technical crew that I was leading. It wasn’t in private. It wasn’t appropriate. And it wasn’t acceptable. When I later confronted him about this behavior he told me that he had a service to run and that it was of the upmost importance. After some further discussions we were able to – both of us – understand that Jesus always put people before the “mission” and we came to a new approach for handling the situation.

Titleless leaders know that you have to value the person more than you value the point of the discussion – because people are the point. Titleless leaders rely on the respect they’ve built. They rely on the fact that others know that the leader will support and protect them when they need it. Because of that they’re willing to go out of their way to support them.

The Less You are Concerned, The More Respect

All of us are caught in the tension of wanting the love and respect of others. As social creatures there’s a need to be connected. However, like all things in life there’s a healthy balance – or an unhealthy one. Knowing that relationships are more important than righteousness can lead you to relationships. However, if you tilt the scales too much in that direction, where you begin to worry about how others think about you, the less true to yourself you can be.

The paradox of the balance is that if you are able to be yourself even when people don’t agree with you, you’ll build respect of others – because they know they can’t always do that. They know how hard it is to be caring about how others perceive you without being concerned.

If you want for people to respect you – rather than perhaps always like you – you’ll have to make some hard choices. Hard choices that you can’t make if you’re concerned about how you’ll be perceived and what people will think.

Titleless leaders know that relationships are more important than righteousness but that being true to yourself and respecting your own values are even more important.

Mutual Respect

Respect is a funny thing. Most folks believe that to respect someone you need to agree with them. However, respect and agreement aren’t the same thing and agreeing with someone isn’t a prerequisite to respect.

I have friends who are Jewish. They have a belief system based on the Torah – roughly equivalent to the Christian old testament of the bible. They’ll believe that I’m wrong in my faith in Christ. They won’t agree with my assessment – however, many of them would openly say that they respect my beliefs because they understand them – not because they agree with them.

I can respect someone else’s position if I have the willingness to accept that their opinion and mine don’t have to agree – and that it’s unlikely that either one of us are completely right. We go through life largely believing that our way is the best way. However, in truth there are many things that we “know” which are incorrect – and many more which represent preference, not “right”.

Titleless leaders know how to grant respect for someone else’s position, their perspective and opinion. In return they’re often granted the same courtesy.

Progress Not Perfection

I’ve got a news flash for you. I’m not perfect – and neither are you. As humans we’re necessarily imperfect beings. However, we’re often caught up in the desire to appear perfect. We want to be seen as someone who has no faults. (See Anatomy of Peace) Consider the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes where in an attempt to avoid being perceived as having a flaw (of seeing beautiful clothing) the emperor walked around his kingdom naked until a little boy – who had no fear of not being perceived as perfect – had the courage to tell him that he had no clothes.

If we can accept that we’re not going to be perfect where does that leave us? The short answer is striving to be as close to perfect as we can. How is this different one might wonder. The answer is that when you know you’re not perfect and are still striving for it you can freely admit your mistakes and learn from them. That makes the difference in terms of your authentic nature that comes out to others and to your own ability to see your faults and work on them.

One of the keys that feeds our need to be perceived as perfect is echos of voices from our youth where people had expectations of us which rightly or wrongly we couldn’t live up to. It’s these echoes of the voices of criticism that we replay and that we continue to hear many years in the future. We can’t let anyone know that we passed gas because it might be embarrassing.

As some point we have to accept that we all have faults and the only way to learn from them is to admit them and work on them. We have to admit that we all have less desirable moments and we have to live with them and accept them.

Best Performing Teams

I want to leave the conversation about the titleless leader with an insight shared from Gallup’s work. They describe the best performing teams have strengths in four domains:

  • Executing – The ability to get things done
  • Influencing – The ability to influence others
  • Relationship Building – The ability to build and maintain important relationships
  • Strategic Thinking – The ability to see the forest in the midst of the trees

Go out and become the best Titleless Leader you can and make your team a high performing one.

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