Samirah was pleased with herself. Her team had just closed a new deal with a premium customer against stiff competition. The deal was theirs, to begin with. After all, this was a loyal customer for many years, and Samirah and the Customer Service team had provided excellent service throughout. But a competing firm had put forth an aggressive bid at the last moment, and Samirah’s company could not match that. To further exacerbate the situation, Samirah’s manager, Arya, the only member in the team authorized to approve pricing discounts, was away on vacation. In the absence of a pricing advantage, Sarah rallied her team to provide exceptional service to the customer that last week. This extra effort by the team did not go unnoticed, and the customer signed the deal, the largest in Sarah’s five-year-old career.
At a hastily organized reward ceremony later that evening, Alex – the National Sales Head – congratulated Sarah for the feat. “We need more leaders like you,” he said.
“I am not a leader, Sir,” replied Sarah softly. “Just a Customer Relations Executive.”
The first and often perpetual confusion most people have about their roles is thescope. How much authority can they exercise? Which decisions can they take, which can they not? How flexible are the rules? Who defines and approves the scope? Is the scope comprehensive? What steps can they take if their people do not respect and follow them? Organizations that are hierarchical, and have been around for a while, usually have very clearly defined roles and job responsibilities. People in such organizations, therefore, have a clear understanding of “authority”. So if A reports to B, B has authority over A and will be called a boss/manager/supervisor/leader.
Leadership, however, extends beyond designations. It is unique in the influence it exerts, and through it, its impact on the team and organizational outcomes. While the functional scope of a designation is generally clearly defined in HR policies, the leadership span is not necessarily so. In the earlier example, can A be a leader too, especially if they do not have anyone reporting to them?
The answer lies in the simplified definition of a leader: Someone who can inspire others towards a common, and usually higher, purpose or goal. Leadership, therefore, need not be the prerogative only of those with “Authority,” either in their designations or in their responsibilities. You do not become a leader simply by having people report to you or possessing an appropriate title. Instead, you exercise true leadership by making intentional decisions that foster an enriched sense of community, collaboration, and capabilities. Indeed, leadership can be exercised by every member of the workforce.
But isn’t it difficult to get people to listen to you when they do not have to? Indeed it is, but the challenge is not insurmountable.
In her book “The Titleless Leader,” author Nan S. Russel says, in a world where workplace communication, collaboration, and dispensation of responsibilities are changing, it is imperative to learn how to build influence and lead others without needing the appropriate authority to do so. In other words, the walls defining hierarchical roles and their spans of control are collapsing, giving way to an open field where employees must keep taking pole positions. In the Future of Work, where designations are playing an increasingly muted role, this is the card that future leaders will play. So how can today’s workforce upskill themselves to become Titleless Leaders? There are three essential skills that need to be honed.
This is perhaps the most difficult skill to be imbibed. In many organizations, direction, guidance, and instructions are still used, even for small tasks, flow top-down. Consequently, employees habituated to waiting for directions forget the skill of enterprise and initiative. The Titleless Leader must be willing to chart unfamiliar waters and muster the courage to take action. They must be ready to make mistakes and learn from them.
A lack of initiative leads to a deficiency indecision-making skills. Faced with the complexities of an ever-changing business environment, the Titleless Leader must learn to make the right decisions. These could range from how to interpret specific business challenges to how to use the existing resources to allocate and delegate tasks to others in the team. Once a decision has been taken, the Titleless Leader must balance between standing firm on it and yet be flexible enough to allow debate and dissent.
Many organizations today are plagued by growing mistrust and cynicism. This predisposition of employees to distrust their managers and leadership stems from many reasons. Primary among them are poor experiences with earlier managers, constant organizational restructuring and reshuffling of teams, and rampant downsizing. Not with standing the reason for such lack of confidence, the Titleless Leader must set about establishing a safe place for the employees, one in which they feel comfortable sharing their ideas, aspirations, and fears.
The concept of the Titleless Leader is especially relevant in the context of the new Future of Workforce frameworks, where dynamic organizational structures and agile collaborations will be the order of the day. The cost of building and sustaining large organizations will no longer be viable. Within the organization's construct, teams will need to remain agile to facilitate collaborations across the board. Designations will become redundant, giving way to skillsets. And in a leaderless world, every one must play the role of the leader.
While the exact nature of the skillsets that will be required of tomorrow’s workforce is still fuzzy, the three skills of Initiative, Decision-making, and Trust will equip the leader to create tailwinds, both for themselves as well as the organization they serve.
The good news is that these are not inborn talents but competencies that can be mastered. But the mastery of such competencies will not happen through legacy L&D systems. Organizations need a strategic approach to build a personalized competency management system for their workforce to imbibe these skills through experiential modules, including simulations, live feedback, and mentoring. Using a robust and engaging digital system for delivering such experiential learning journeys can go a long way in helping organizations imbibe Titleless Leadership in their DNA.