Leadership Labels & Categories
The other day I was having a dialog with someone I hadn’t spoken with before and, during the conversation, I surfaced the fact that leadership buckets, titles, categories, labels [whatever you prefer to call them] frustrate the heck out of me because it minimizes what leaders are capable of, and do. every day. I work profoundly hard to NOT to be easily or accidentally placed into any type of leadership theory bucket or any other shallow and pedantic category by those with whom I work or even simply interact with on an occasional basis. Every day I work hard to evolve, learn, and grow through, and with, the realities of the business and the people that are in front of me and adapt my course of action to the specific issues, objectives, vision, and values of the organization I am lucky enough to work with. I have learned from three years of consulting that there is absolutely, positively not a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership [or anything in life for that matter].
After all of these years of researching and writing, I recognize that poo-pooing leadership titles/styles title can be somewhat unpopular, it is not something I generally mention in conversation. However, this topic was genuinely organic to the conversation so I felt somewhat comfortable bringing it up. I was – literally – giddy to meet someone who actually agreed with me. So, after we concluded our conversation, I felt a renewed sense of purpose around, and an elevated interest in, why people insist on labeling and categorizing themselves as a “servant leader”, an “autocratic leader” [yikes], or – perhaps – as an “affiliative leader” [yep, it’s actually a thing…] – workplace society is lousy with titles and buckets of leadership genres to the tune of at least 21 from my count over the past four days.
Why can we not be just really authentic, kind, involved, invested, enthusiastic, compassionate, and interested human beings with integrity that are supporting and learning from each other as business partners and colleagues? Why can we not speak to our individual accomplishment, vision, and values in plain words? Unfortunately, when I hear “I am a servant leader”, I immediately think of someone who is absolutely committed to helping their team and their colleagues, which is really lovely, but counter to that I think of one who will quickly find themselves lost or left behind in the marketplace because they aren’t focused on their own growth and development. This title also evokes concern that the “leader” possesses ruinous empathy. This is when a manager cares too much and are concerned about potentially hurting the feelings of the person on the other end of the dialog to their ultimate professional detriment and are soft in supporting their colleagues.
The Dangers Of Labeling Yourself
We live in a noisy, busy, sometimes kooky world and when things get chaotic or confusing it eases our minds to be able to put a label on things. For some reason placing a label on things or categorizing things helps our brains sort out the nonsense and brings us some peace. The problem with categorizing or labeling anyone and – especially – ourselves is that it is too simple and it is usually unfair to how complex and compelling many of us are as human beings. Labeling allows us to put ourselves in a different category than others, artificially separating us from that which we believe we are not. It is indeed a basic human inclination to categorize or label ourselves so we can show we are different and/or superior in some way to others. It’s why others may not understand us and categorizing ourselves gives us the justification for not dealing with others because they don’t “get it”.
We are all humans on a journey that is not binary or predictable in any way. We all need to grow, evolve, and change based on the divergent world around us, our circumstances, and the people we are surrounded with. To be placed into a category is the root cause of far too many misunderstandings. It too quickly absolves us from having to get to truly know, connect with, and understand the human being behind their label or category.
Following this energizing Monday phone call where I excitedly discovered that I wasn’t the only person who disagreed with these labels. I started thinking about how damaging the empty and ugly reality of leadership labels can be. Labels/categories that have floated out of trendy business books and training seminars – it propagates the use of these phrases by organizations and other leaders who seek to find “like-minded” people to join their company and fit in with their culture. I know the use of words and labels seems trivial but it is one of the telling signs that an organization and their leadership lack vision and don’t have a great handle on their culture…by adopting and advocating categorical leadership styles and labels instead of hiring truly diverse, quality, and qualified people we are now using a process that makes most relationships safe and pedestrian because we are surrounded by others that are most similar to us. Organizations fall into this trap time and time again – not realizing they are eroding their opportunity to support and elevate innovation, invite different perspectives into the conversation, create and inspire thought, and challenge each other.
Instead of wrestling with difficult questions, these organizations settle for token answers to token questions. Instead of legitimately asking questions that might challenge the way we think, we allow the aligned and parochial beliefs of the group guide decisions in only a singular direction.
Everyone adopts or possesses the same point of view. I see this behavior in far too many companies. Instead of resulting in a diverse and dynamic group of invested and interested people constantly questioning “why?”, “how can we do this better?”, challenging the status quo, and searching for the best answer possible to each obstacle, it’s very easy for your like-minded group of thinkers to turn into a group of “yes” men and women.
The Judgement Of Others
I am 5’11” tall without shoes on and once dressed for work I end up being just around 6’4″ tall. People make a lot of comments and assumptions about me because of my height. I love being tall, I always have. I can always safely describe myself as the tall one, with blond[ish] hair, lots of freckles, and most likely wearing a black dress to those who haven’t met me and they know exactly who I am in a crowded room. Along with being easy to spot, I am invariably asked many [many] questions about my height if I was involved in sports or modeling. We invite enough judgement about ourselves just by existing as people – why give anyone an added reason to assign judgement to you by categorizing yourself in any way.
Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School and psychologists Susan Fiske of Princeton University and Peter Glick of Lawrence University have developed a powerful initial assessment model. It turns out, people immediately judge others on two main qualities: warmth [whether they are friendly and well intentioned] and competence [whether they have the ability to deliver on those intentions].
Society is crafty – whether we care to realize it or not, labels assign us our identity in the workplace. They shape our career path and opportunities. They limit what we allow ourselves to become. Creating a leadership label can increase the likelihood that you will continue to act in that manner. Saying that you are a servant leader increases the likelihood that you will be seen as someone who is unlikely to take risks or lacks a passion around your professional growth. For once you identify yourself with a particular group of people, in your career, then you often begin to define the rest of your existence based on this label. You think, “I’m an X person, so that means I do things like U, V, W – because that’s what X people do.” I get it, labeling yourself as part of a group feels good – as it gives you an immediate sense of belonging and identity. But it also limits you in many ways that can have a negative impact on your career journey.
Labeling yourself or others with the potent labels of diagnostic leadership categories also can convey a blanket negative feeling. Similarly, character diagnostic labels like “autocrat leader” convey distinctly disadvantageous connotations. To most of us, autocrat is a fancy word for selfish-jerk. Once you’ve begun thinking of a colleague with the negative label like autocrat for instance, you become at risk for interpreting everything they do in a negative or selfish light. If a colleague of yours has been labeled as jerk offers to help ease your workload or helps you overcome an obstacle, instead of appreciating the generous gesture you may think to yourself, “What’s their hidden agenda?” or “Ugh, they are just trying to make themselves look good”.
Now is a great time to evaluate your uniqueness and embrace what makes you special and different from the masses. Does leaving your label behind and revamping your elevator pitch take some time to reinvent? Absolutely. But when you can genuinely articulate and show action around what makes you special and viable to companies and teams, people will begin to see your exclusive value, your passion, and your authentic self – not what your label assigns to you. You can allow your warmth and competence to be your calling card instead of a overused leadership title and in today’s exciting world that is what stands out and make you memorable.