As the author of a book titled You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader, you might mistakenly assume I’m against formal titles. I’m not. I have nothing at all against titles or those holding them, and I’ve even held a few myself. I just don’t believe that a title makes anyone a leader. Usually someone gets a title because he or she has demonstrated leadership ability, but the title only confirms leadership; it doesn’t bestow it. (Even then, a title might not confirm leadership ability, but more accurately reflect the responsibilities of the job.)

If I were to give my book a second subtitle, it would be “But a Title Won’t Hurt You if You Use it Correctly.” Titles can be used well, or they can be used poorly. Here are some title do’s and don’ts to think about:


  1. Understand the responsibilities that go with the title

The only thing more obtuse than a job description is a title. Titles are often vague. Most financial institutions have many V.P.s even though in some organizations there is only one V.P.

Any legitimate title will confer more responsibilities than rights. You probably know what status your title bestows. Make sure you also understand the responsibilities and that come with it.

Is your title more honorary than substantive? What are the organizational and legal responsibilities that go with your particular title? Have you had that conversation with your boss? Is your boss able to clarify responsibilities conferred by your title beyond what is contained in your job description?

  1. Clarify the expectations of those above and below you

Responsibilities are what you need to do to successfully fulfill your position or role. Expectations are what you need to manage to maintain the respect of those you work with.

There may be expectations people have of you because of your title that may or may not be fair or realistic. Does your attire reflect that perceived status of the title you hold? Is your demeanor commensurate with your title? Does your boss expect you to act, manage or lead differently because of your position on the organizational chart?

Having a title can be a good thing but it can make it easier to disappoint your colleagues who now have higher expectations of you.

  1. Use it to position you with clients and vendors

Clients and vendors can benefit from understanding your title as it related to influence within your organization and decision-making ability. Titles are helpful in knowing who to go to for information, and who is empowered to represent and negotiate for an organization.

As a former sales professional, I can tell you how upsetting it is to find that the person who positioned him- or herself as a decision maker really isn’t. Deceitful or inaccurate positioning can be most frustrating to clients and vendors alike.

  1. Feel good about the effort you invested to achieve it

Even if your title was given to you in lieu of a pay increase, you can still be justifiably proud of the effort you invested to receive it. Most titles are given for specific reasons, and unless your title is gratuitous, you should be proud of what it took you to attain it.


  1. Flaunt it

Most people are annoyed by others who put on airs and act superior, and this is one of the most frequent ways titles are abused. Reminding people of your importance because of your title is a bad idea. Demonstrating competence through your work is the most legitimate way to be recognized.

  1. Use it as a threat

Using a title to threaten or coerce is also a no-no. Even if you have the power to be punitive, use it only in a worse case scenario. Threatening others with your position will quickly erode any real or perceived power that position might have bestowed.

  1. Exaggerate its importance

As a small business owner, I’m always amused by titles like President or CEO when one is the only employee. While such a title might be legally appropriate, especially if one is incorporated, making a big deal out of the title is silly. People won’t be nearly impressed with your title when they find out it is self-bestowed and that you’re the only employee.

  1. Let it make you complacent

If you work within a large organization, don’t let your title create a false sense of security. You’ll need to keep getting better just to stay even in a competitive workplace. Titles aren’t job guarantees. Keep striving to improve your game.

Some of my favorite books in my personal library are those written 50 or 100 years ago. Since truth is timeless, I believe we can learn much from some of these classics. One idea I recently read was this: “Conduct yourself as a person ten times greater than you already are.” The author’s suggestion was to hold yourself to a higher standard of conduct and bearing and in due time, you would become such a person. Regardless of your title or lack of one, why not conduct yourself as if you were C.E.O., not by foolishly assuming the power the C.E.O. of your company has legitimately been given, but by behaving and performing as if you had that level of responsibility? Done appropriately, it couldn’t but help you increase your leadership ability in your current role.

When Charlie Bell took the #2 position at McDonalds, he was asked by a journalist if he was next in line to be CEO. “I take every job at McDonalds as if it’s going to be my last.” His intense focus on doing that best at whatever job and whatever positioned did result in him become CEO before his untimely death.

Leaders use skills and abilities, not titles and status, to produce results. If you have a title, that can be a good thing, especially if you realize its value and use it correctly.

Mark Sanborn's Leadership Tips

Mark Sanborn
About Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Mark is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. Mark Sanborn graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University. In addition to his work as a business educator and author, Mark continues to be an active leadership practitioner. Most recently he served as the president of the National Speakers Association.

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