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Let’s Just Stop Calling Them Leaders

Executives, officials, and managers should have to earn the title of “leader,” not just expect to receive it.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

We are surrounded by ineffective leadership. According to the most recent National Leadership Index from the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, 69 percent of Americans think that the country faces a leadership crisis. The good news is that’s down eight points from 2011. But 69 percent doesn’t earn anyone a gold star.

In this new study, only two sectors rate above average in leadership confidence: the military and medicine. Only the military has had a net gain in confidence since 2005 when the survey was first conducted. Business leaders are generally in the middle of the pack of below average performers, but a subset of them—Wall Street’s supposed leaders—is keeping company with Congress and the media down in the basement of public confidence.

I believe that part of our leadership problem and, more importantly, part of the solution is linguistic.

In the landmark 1978 book, Leadership, (Harper & Row), author James MacGregor Burns focused almost exclusively on political leaders because he felt that the ability of followers to exercise choice between potential leaders (for example, by voting in an election) was a prerequisite for leadership. Compelled obedience—whether it is compelled by physical force, financial threat, or other means—simply didn’t qualify as leadership. Business executives received but scant attention. Their job, after all, was management. And although employees may freely choose to join or leave a firm, their time between those two events involved little choice about whom to follow.

Shortly thereafter, business entered an age where companies were reorganizing for efficiency. Paper-pushing middle managers became vulnerable and expendable. But leaders had vision and made critical decisions. It was good to be a leader. After all, how could a firm part with such a valuable individual?

Leadership books and leadership development programs grew in popularity. Senior management teams became known as senior leadership teams. Leadership gurus were sought-after speakers at conferences. And the leadership industry, as Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman dubbed it, was off and running. “Teaching how to lead is where the money is,” she said.

A by-product of all of this leaderliness, as Stephen Colbert might call it, has been a proliferation of leader labels and a gutting of the understanding of what it actually means to be a leader. Thus, we have created and perpetuated a self-fulfilling downward spiral of disappointment: We call more people “leader,” or they take that title themselves, and then we’re shocked—shocked!—when they fail to provide leadership.

We can, however, begin to reverse this sad state of affairs through simple language: Let’s stop calling people leaders until they demonstrate that they truly deserve the appellation. When I speak on behalf of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), I make these distinctions:

Leadership is based on behavior and independent of role or rank. Just because someone has a fancy office or an important-sounding title, they are not automatically imbued with the ability to lead. Certain roles may come with the expectation that whoever holds them will be able to lead, but I have worked for CEOs who fell horribly short and with strong leaders who were officially seated deep in the formal hierarchy. You likely have as well.

“Leader” is a mantle earned, not taken. The founding co-director of the NPLI, Dr. Leonard Marcus, champions what he calls the world’s shortest definition of leadership: People follow you. No matter what you call yourself, you aren’t leading if no one is following. Leadership is as much about followers as it is about who they follow; it is in their power to anoint a leader.

Leadership is more about the why than the what: People who get organizations to deliver on the quarterly numbers or meet production goals are good, maybe even great, managers. Management is challenging and doing it well should be rewarded. But only when you dig deeper to discover whether employees are invested in the deeper purpose and mission of the organization will you discover how well they are being led. I see management and leadership as complementary skills. Strong leaders know at least a bit about how to manage and strong managers know something about how to lead.

As straightforward as I believe each of these distinctions to be, translating them into everyday speech and writing is more difficult than it looks. Leader is an easy handle for a senior-level person that works across private, public, and non-profit sector contexts. Leader has an appealing, aspirational ring to it. This is why it has been so seductive, and once seduced, our hearts were bound to be broken.

No matter the difficulty, we owe it ourselves to stop. Today. Cold turkey. Let’s just stop calling people leaders when they fail to lead. We can call them executives, high-ranking officials, or senior managers. Those monikers will salve their egos as they acknowledge their lofty formal roles. Let’s reserve the meaningful designation of leader for those we choose to follow. Perhaps then more of those who aspire to be leaders will work harder to earn the title.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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