A famous politician once said, “The longer the title, the less important the job.” If that’s true, then Andrea Stoller has a very important job indeed. Just ask anyone who has had contact with her at the school where she has worked for the past fifteen years.
Andrea is not a licensed teacher. In fact, Andrea Stoller has no real “title” at all. What does she do? Nearly everything. She wears dozens of hats, including that of accountant, nurse, receptionist, secretary, admissions coordinator, supply coordinator, and counselor. And although she doesn’t have an official title, her favorite is the one that nearly 200 students give to her every year. They call her “Mom.”
I’m convinced that at the heart of every successful organization is a title-less person or persons just like Andrea.
One day, Andrea received a phone call informing her that one of the students, coming home from soccer practice, had been in a fatal car accident. When the teenage girl had gotten out of her car, an older man driving another car accidentally hit her, killing her instantly. The tragedy was devastating for the girl’s family and classmates, as well as for the young man she had been dating at the time, Simon.
After the accident, Simon sunk into a deep depression, avoiding people and falling behind in his schoolwork. It seemed as though he would become collateral damage in the tragedy. Andrea spotted the signs of his depression and attempted to befriend him. She offered to help him with his class work and tutor him, despite the fact that she didn’t have a teacher’s degree.
At graduation, everyone applauded when Simon walked to the dais to give the commencement address. In his speech, he specifically thanked Andrea for helping him to graduate. Today, the young man who nearly lost hope when he lost his high school sweetheart is a nationally recognized skateboarder. He regularly encourages other students, just as Andrea encouraged him.
Given Andrea’s stature at the school, it’s not surprising that many students choose to use one of their class electives to serve as office aides with her. Not only do they learn good office skills from her, but they know they will receive much-prized one-onone time with her. She listens to them, advises them, and cares for them when they are sick or need help. In fact, she has such a kind, understanding heart that even parents have come to her with their own problems (divorce, issues with their kids, etc.).
One summer the local junior high burned down. As a result, the school where Andrea worked needed to create more space quickly to house extra students. The school decided to add several modular buildings to its campus.
With necessary last-minute construction and repairs to be done, Andrea and her husband worked late into the evening for weeks, staying until midnight at times, in order to be ready for the building inspectors so school could open on time. Andrea even found a temporary location for those classes whose rooms were not yet approved by the time the school year started—the church she attends offered to let the school use their facility for several weeks. And, as a result of Andrea’s “negotiations,” the school paid very little to rent the facilities.
Andrea Stoller still doesn’t have a title. But she leads and influences others in significant ways every day.
WHAT GOOD IS A TITLE?
In today’s world, much is made of a person’s title. Yet little actual power exists in a title alone.
I once did a survey on my Web site about the reasons people had for acting as leaders. One woman replied, “I want to be Ruler of the Universe someday, and figure being a leader at my company is a good place to start.”
Her wry sense of humor underscores the appeal of titles; they suggest that one has achieved power, position, prestige, and privilege.
But are titles really that powerful? What does a title really confer?
An article in the New York Times described a corporate communications officer at Amtrak whose title had been changed from “Vice President” to “Chief.” But the title change wasn’t the result of a promotion. When the company reduced the number of VPs from eighty-five to ten, he was given the new title to make him feel better—he was one of the select few in the company to hold such a position. What kind of impact did the new title have on the people under him? “It meant absolutely nothing,” the new chief acknowledged.
Sometimes it is easier to give an employee an important sounding title than pay him or her more (although, according to one survey, 85 percent of people would pass up a bigger title for a 10 percent increase in pay). Marc Cenedella, president and chief executive of TheLadders.com, an executive job-search site, says, “You’re never going to get hired based on your title, in and of itself. A job title’s more useful internally to your company and for how you feel you’re viewed.”
In other words, a title is not a job description. There are some things that a title can suggest, like having responsibility for others and getting results. It can’t, however, specifically define what a person does. Titles are broad brushstrokes.
In fact, when it comes to true power, titles are frequently misleading. Even at the level of CEO, a company head who is disliked can be all but ignored by those under her or him, while a respected employee with a lower title can wield significant influence on what others do and how quickly they do it.
It’s impossible for a title or an organizational chart to reflect all the many people who act as leaders or exert leadership throughout the organization. That is why I call such people “nontitled leaders.” They may or may not have direct responsibility to lead others, yet every day they influence and lead those around them.
The bottom line is, influence and inspiration come from the person, not the position.
CHANGING THE WORLD WITHOUT A TITLE
Consider a figure from history who lived approximately two thousand years ago. He was highly educated and born into a family of influence and prestige. And yet it wasn’t until he gave up his social position that he gained real power.
He was both a highly religious person and one of the most feared religious persecutors of his day. His focus was clear: identify and punish the followers of a Galilean named Jesus. These believers were passionate about living for a man who had been crucified for his teachings, which posed a threat to the religious order of that day.
You will likely recognize this religious leader-and religious persecutor-as Saul. He was convinced that this new group that followed Jesus was a threat not only to traditional religion, but to society as well. In one of the great ironies of history, Saul’s life and name would be changed and he would become known as the first and-to this day-most prominent Christian theologian.
In a dramatic account recorded in the book of Acts, Saul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute believers when he was struck blind. Terrified by his condition, he heard a voice: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Could it really be the leader of this new religious sect? While Saul had never met this Jesus whose followers he targeted, he somehow knew that this was who was speaking to him.
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked (Acts 9:5).
The response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:5-6).
It was only after doing as he was instructed and meeting a disciple named Ananias, who placed his hands on Saul, that he regained his sight. After that, Saul was baptized and soon got his strength back. But his life was forever changed.
In Damascus, he immediately began to preach that Jesus was the Son of God. People were amazed. Wasn’t this the man raising havoc in Jerusalem against believers? And hadn’t he come to Damascus to persecute believers there?
Everything about Saul had changed, including his name. He became Paul, and next to Jesus he was the most instrumental figure in the building of the Christian church. Thirteen of the books of the New Testament are attributed to him.
When you read about Paul’s life, it’s clear that he struggled in the same ways that you and I struggle in our daily lives. He is a leader who is easy to relate to. Paul modeled a commitment to his beliefs and convictions without making that commitment appear unattainable to his listeners and readers. While some have found Paul to be harsh, I identify with the honesty of his journey.
Paul put his intellect and education to good use and was skilled in communicating with diverse groups of people. His aim was to build up and glorify Jesus, whom he now followed. He had no personal agenda for recognition or gain.
This early church leader without a title gave up much. He went from a life of privilege to a life of ministry. And like those he previously persecuted, he too suffered for his faith. His agenda and focus changed, and he spent the balance of his life building up the church he previously sought to tear down.
While the Bible isn’t clear on this point, tradition has it that Paul paid the ultimate price of commitment and gave his life for his faith, beheaded for his beliefs. Not only did Paul lead the early church, but his impact continues to be felt 2,000 years later, not only in theology but in art, music, and psychology. His leadership transcends time. He didn’t have a title, yet his extraordinary passion and faith still inspire and instruct believers around the world today.
AN ARMY OF LIONS
Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, said, “An army of deer led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions led by a deer.” That may be true, but I’ve come to believe that Philip missed the bigger point: An army of lions led by a lion is to be feared most of all, for it is unstoppable.
What’s more powerful than having strong, effective leadership at the top of your organization? Having an organization of lions where everyone leads.
At any Toyota plant, every employee on the line has the authority and responsibility to shut down the line at any time they feel necessary. Quality control and problem solving aren’t left to the titled managers. A woman who spots a problem is expected to lead by calling attention to it rather than allowing it to slip through and become an imperfection on a dealer’s lot or owner’s driveway.
My friend Susan told me a story about the best receptionist she ever met, a woman who served as the “front person” at the company where she worked. On her desk was a sign: RECEPTIONISTVILLE. POPULATION: 1. If you asked her what her title was, she’d respond, “Intergalatic Empress.” She took herself lightly, but her job seriously. She was a leader for the company as its first point of contact.
A cable TV installer I met in one of my seminars prided himself on the many value-added services he provided customers when he worked in their homes, including setting the clock to the correct time on their electronic devices and showing them how to use features that confused them. He didn’t consider himself an installer, but a “home-entertainment consultant.”
A volunteer at a nonprofit, filling in by answering the phones, took a phone call from a disgruntled donor. The donor felt unappreciated. The volunteer was able to communicate the gratitude of the organization for the donor’s previous support, thereby regaining his loyalty. In the end, the volunteer’s sincerity and belief in the work of the organization convinced the donor to increase his support.
LEADERSHIP LARGE AND SMALL
Many suffer from the misconception that leadership is about large, sweeping acts of history: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Churchill and his “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech during the Second World War.
Yes, those history-making events certainly marked extraordinary acts of leadership and courage. But what we don’t always realize is that each of our daily actions and efforts have significant impact, as well. Rosa Parks had no idea of the impact she would have on history when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Yet her actions and courage changed the course of our nation’s history.
When you do your job—any job—with initiative and determination to make a positive difference, you become a leader. Sandra Dowling, the founder of Pappas School for homeless students in Phoenix, explains the power of individual leadership this way: “When a new teacher comes to the school, I tell them, ‘If you went into teaching to make a difference, I want to welcome you. But at this school, you won’t make a difference; you will be the difference.’”