The Right to Lead: It's not a title; you have to earn it

Caleb Walsh illustration

There is a cascade of leadership books centered around the notion that leading effectively is largely about executing certain skills with precision and accuracy. What if there is more required to leading well? Leadership skills will never be maximized if the leader has not yet earned the right to lead from the people they are serving.

During the 1950s, organizational theory suggested that leadership is confined to the person with the highest title, or in today's terms, the C-Suite. This theory has been lodged in the consciousness of America ever since. The Greatest Generation, many Baby Boomers and Generation X have been largely comfortable that a position naturally grants permission to lead others. While these three generations were taught to respect and follow the title, Millennials and the emerging individuals of Generation Z generally do not exclusively follow a title, but they will follow a person. To lead effectively in this new context, leadership is something that will need to be earned from the people being served.

It is not uncommon for organizations to be populated with a positional leader as well as an emotional leader. People follow the emotional leader because trust and commitment has transpired. The positional leader may have minimal influence in their organization or department if they have not earned the right to lead. People follow an emotional leader because they know that individual is invested in them equally as a person and as well as an employee.

While at an Aspen Institute reunion, where I have been a fellow for a number of years, an editor from Time magazine spoke to us and said that every person who follows us will fundamentally ask two questions, "Where are we going, and do you care about me?" If this is true, wisdom suggests one should hold tightly to the knowledge that each employee, customer or co-worker desires some level of an emotional connection. Earning the right to lead comes from earning the trust from your employees and co-workers. As a result, influence is a privilege given to us by the people we serve.

A cliché has been floating around for years stating people don't care what you know until they know that you care. Research indicates one of the most motivating aspects to an employee is having an authentic connection with their superior. Hence, there may be more truth to this notion than has been given credit. The pathway to earning the right to lead is an intentional and a consistent approach of purposefully investing into employees. Forging meaningful relationships may take time because it is paramount to allow people to develop trust at their own pace.

Therefore, leading well is more than just responding to their texts, emails and questions. Most importantly, it is building into employees and empowering them to follow their dreams even if that eventually leads to different employment. A plethora of examples from some of the most respected CEOs in our country show these individuals often start their day by intentionally connecting with their employees. Trust is demonstrated when we show authentic interest in them as a person while exercising candor and vulnerability. When we show our vulnerability, it naturally builds some level of connection. Each person comes with a history of good and bad experiences which impact current relationships. Earning the right to lead assumes individuals will need time to fully trust you and your judgment.

When the famous Lou Holtz was initially given the position of head coach for Notre Dame football, he was given meaningful advice by former Notre Dame President Father Cavanaugh just moments prior to being officially introduced to the world in his new exciting role. Father Cavanaugh said, "I can give you the title of head coach, but only your team can give you the position of leader." The Millennials and Generation Z members will ultimately decide whom will have the most influence over them. ♦

Kevin Parker is an entrepreneur and teaches leadership and business courses at Whitworth University. Previously, he served as a Republican state representative for the 6th Legislative District.

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About The Author

Kevin Parker

Kevin Parker is an entrepreneur and teaches leadership and business courses at Whitworth University. Previously, he served as a Republican state representative for the 6th Legislative District.