Weeks ago, I was interviewed to teach a night class in product management. During our conversation, one of the interviewers was particularly interested in my current title. “Are you a Project Lead?” “No.” I didn’t elaborate, because there was nothing more to say. The natural follow-up question would enable me to describe my role and contribution to teams. But the interviewer didn’t ask the natural follow-up question. “When will you be a Project Lead?” He asked. “I don’t know,” I responded, “I haven’t even had this conversation with my manager.” He pushed harder. “Okay, but what does it take to be a Project Lead?” When I finally explained that employees at my company are fairly autonomous, each of us leading different work streams while embodying the qualities of a leader regardless of title, my interviewer was annoyed and dissatisfied. “I think if your title was Project Lead it would just sell better. Our other instructors have titles like this.” Before the interview was over, I no longer wanted the position. I couldn’t imagine being affiliated with an organization where title carried more weight than skills or experience.
Last Sunday, as the cast took the stage for The Lion King‘s finale, I was mesmerized by one member—but it wasn’t Simba. I couldn’t take my eyes off the zebra as she entered on stage right and lead herself to the front of stage left. It was only when she stopped that I realized that Simba had also entered the stage and had already ascended to the top of Pride Rock. How did I miss his entrance? Where did he come from? Given that I had spent the past two hours following Simba’s character, I was surprised that a minor ensemble character had captured my attention instead of him. I should note that it wasn’t because Simba was not entertaining. He was fantastic. But so was every single other cast member who took the stage over the course of the musical. From the lioness herd that flanked Sarabi to the gazelles who bowed down as Mufasa announced Simba, the musical flaunted the fact that there really are no small parts. Every role, together, made the musical what it was, which is a perfect metaphor for the makeup animal kingdom.
Later in the week, I listened to this NPR podcast about a car parking company who extols the virtues of its customer support representatives. Dubious of this lofty claim, one of the reporters tried to get one of the employees to crack. “You’re talking about a department that is pretty minor in the grand scheme of your app and which a lot of companies take care of with a website, like frequently asked questions.” The employee unwaveringly responds, “I think of them as, you know, the heroes of the company because they’re heroes for individual humans out there in the world.” This company is of the mindset that a person’s given role does not define the impact she has in the world. Employees across the organization consider customer support representatives to be “heroes.” To me, the value this company places on every employee’s contribution is not shocking. That’s because it sounds a lot like places I’ve worked. Arguably, a “flat” hierarchical structure is responsible for the high-quality, creative work that comes out of innovative companies. On a given project, a zebra is just as much the king as a lion because each person brings something unique and significant to the table.
This podcast and my interview earlier this month reminded me that, in many pockets of the business world, leadership is still defined by one’s title, specifically, whether is includes the word “Manager” or “Lead.” But Broadway reminded me that this is all it is. A word. Scar is no more or less a leader once he forcibly takes on the title of King.
Though the schema is a hard one to break, leadership is not a title. Whether you are a zebra or Simba, a customer service representative or CEO, leadership is more than a costume or headset you put on and take off. It is a mindset. And one that only you have the power to unleash.