Leadership Is Not A Rank


People aren’t going to follow you because you order them to. They’re not going to seek out a new path because you tell them that they must. Real change happens when someone who cares steps up and takes what feels like a risk. People follow because they want to, not because you order them to.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin

Not long ago I was giving a leadership lecture in a class of twenty firefighters and I asked, “Who in here is a leader?”

None of the firefighters raised their hand. One person did however, the instructor. I could already see where this was going…

I addressed him and followed up with, “When did you become a leader?”

He answered proudly, “In 2004, when I was first promoted”.

“So you first became a leader when you were promoted?” I questioned.

He responded, “That’s correct”.

I told him he was wrong. He looked at me stunned, a little confused, and slightly offended. “I’m willing to bet that you were a leader even before you were promoted. At a minimum, someone believed there was leadership potential in you, which led to you being promoted. Would you agree?”

There was a sudden realization about him, and he confirmed and accepted what I had suspected. That realization soon spread across the room to the firefighters as well.

Leaders Do Not Need Formal Authority

Here is the deal – Leadership is not a rank. Period. End of story.

The problem is we have it so engrained in our minds that position equals leadership. This could not be farther from the truth. Position equals responsibility, and usually more of it, but to say that someone is unequivocally a leader because they gain position is absolutely false.

Try This:

Think of someone who has position, and when they speak no one listens. When they are absent everyone feels relieved, and no matter how hard you try they always seem to stall any progress from being made.

Now think of someone you know who is on the front line, bottom of the totem pole, with no rank, however they are well respected by his or her peers, and drives production and execution.

Which would you consider a leader?

There is no clear crossover into leadership. It simply happens over time as you gain respect, responsibility (not by position) and make choices to execute change.

It is easy to associate leadership with rank or position, but in doing so unjustly discredits those leaders who have no rank. It is the subordinate leaders who make the difference, who drive change, and to which a lot more credit is owed.

If You’re Reading This:

To those with position – train your subordinate leaders, trust them and hold them to standard.

To the informal leaders – do not wait for someone to give you permission to do your job better, or to step up and drive change. Just do it.


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