Leadership lingo

For me, everyone can be a leader. Leadership is a mindset that everyone can cultivate. It’s not a position on an organization chart.

Leadership lingo by Nancy Knowlton

It’s often hard to say where some things originate, but then one day you notice them everywhere. The words leader and leadership were like that for me. Suddenly managers became leaders. It was no longer acceptable to call people managers, and I was schooled several times on the difference between the two, most commonly being told that managers manage things like assets and leaders lead people.

Wording nuances

Then the expressions management team and executive team became leadership team for all of the same reasons. It is one of those questionable changes that prompts staff at lower levels to roll their eyes and become cynical about the self-elevation in the way the management team refers to itself.

I get the arguments and appreciate the value in using strong and positive language, but I don’t buy into the thinking about using these terms as many now do. I’ll get right to the point and say this – reserving the word leader for an organizational level is wrong-headed and misses some important points.

Leadership in action

Work today is increasingly cognitive – people need to think and be creative in their jobs. They confront challenges and problems that, in some situations, do not allow time to stop and seek approval. People need to be able to make and execute decisions on the spot. Other situations require challenging minds to reconsider process and the status quo in order to adapt to rapidly changing environments. Seeing trends and opportunity requires active engagement coupled with a heightened sense of responsibility.

Perhaps more than this, people need to know that they have freedom to do their jobs within a structure and process that they can influence and help develop. And if you think about it, that knowledge leads to the highest level of engagement, which leads to accountability and performance. Viewing everyone as a leader is a virtuous circle – giving control and responsibility (making people leaders) turns them into leaders. Of course, appropriate support, training and development are required for all.

Everybody a leader

Everyone can be a leader, and I would argue that we need everyone considering themselves to be a leader. Sometimes the most influential leaders in organizations are those who don’t have a hierarchical position that makes them one. They are opinion leaders because of who they are and what they have done and contributed. Others see value in their contributions beyond their titles and organizational role.

I am just starting to read a new book entitled Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet. I picked it up off the shelf because of the subtitle – A true story of turning followers into leaders. (David Marquet shares his experiences as the captain of a submarine in this YouTube video.) A quick scan of the first few pages at the bookstore lead to some phrases jumping out that aligned with my thinking on the subject of leadership. His is a leader-leader model, versus leader-follower. I am looking forward to reading what he has to say about his experiences in literally turning his people’s performance around and building a pervasive culture of leadership and performance.

Cautious usage

I recognize that times change and language and thinking evolves. However, on the issue of the broadened use of the leadership lingo, I am cautious. I’ll continue to use the words leader and leadership when I am referring to someone who is truly a leader, not just someone with a management position and title.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.