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What’s in a Name?: How to Lead Without the Title

Nick Raef, Center for Leadership

Students who visit the Center for Leadership often share the same misconception about leadership: that their title dictates their abilities. Under this dangerous assumption, student leaders who want to establish themselves as change-makers within their group often feel powerless.

A simple shift in perspective, however, can restore your personal path to development as a leader. Instead of thinking in terms of “leader” as a noun or identifier, think of it as a verb, an action—the act of guiding a team. From this perspective, each team member is empowered to answer their call to lead. Take a look at the following suggestions to see how you can lead without the title:

Know (and show) your strengths

The Center for Leadership’s philosophy rests on authentic leadership, or the idea that each student should focus on developing their own distinct talents rather than adhering to a single idea of what a leader looks like.

You have a very particular set of skills (think Liam Neeson) that makes your contribution to the team valuable and unique. Instead of focusing on what you lack, recognize what talents you already possess and use them to bolster your group. For example, are you a subject matter expert? Continue building your expertise and find how it can bolster your group. Do you always know just the right questions to ask in meetings? Make sure your voice is heard loud and clear. Are you great at building interpersonal relationships? Use that ability to improve group cohesion and reach compromises.

You won’t become a good leader by simply patching up your shortcomings; you will, however, become great when you develop where you’ve already had success. The Center for Leadership can help you recognize your strengths and weaknesses with a 360° Assessment—start your assessment now

Sweat the small stuff

The most important aspects of leadership are rarely the big-picture visions that higher-ups direct, but the seemingly simple duties carried out by other team members. Tasks like scheduling meetings, following up with people and tactfully bringing up the elephant in a room require initiative and responsibility. Putting the necessary effort into the logistics of teamwork shows that you are able to handle more authority within your group. Furthermore, taking care of these manners of business shows a level of passion for your group’s mission that is sure to gain the respect of your colleagues. At your next meeting, take note of the small improvements you’d like to see in the following meeting or in your group at large. Then, take charge and suggest these changes, or offer to implement them yourself. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

Be the first follower

A leader without followers is just a talking head. The success of any mission or project does not lay solely in the ability of the leader to devise a great plan, but also in their capacity to persuade and motivate others to join them. Moreover, success depends on at least one person deciding to be the first follower–turning the “talking head” into the leader of a movement. Sometimes, the best way you can lead your group toward a goal is not by stepping to the front, but by stepping into a movement as the first follower. In more collaborative settings, this move isn’t about stepping in line behind someone delivering orders; rather, it’s about lending momentum toward a worthy cause.

Get Coached

By now, the hope is that you’re beginning to think of the term “leader” not simply as someone who sits at the head of the table and barks orders, but as someone who uses their abilities to improve a team and influence others. This means that anyone can be a leader on a team. If you’re interested in developing your leadership abilities, apply to be paired with a leadership coach. Leadership coaching isn’t about rectifying your faults, but about amplifying your strengths. In five one-hour sessions over the length of an academic quarter, you’ll meet with your coach to discuss how to improve team communication, define your own leadership strengths, and create a leadership narrative.

If you’re interested in the Center for Leadership’s other programming, including our Leadership Certificate Program, Ventures in Leadership Grants, Leadership Ambassadors Program, or the Fellowship in Leadership, visit us at lead.northwestern.edu.

(Source: Northwestern Center for Leadership)

(Source: Northwestern Center for Leadership)

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