Leadership Pitfalls: Confusing Titles With Accomplishments

There are any number of ways in which the various committees on which we serve or positions we may hold make valuable contributions to the organizations of which we are a part. I am absolutely certain of that.

At the same time, while holding positions and serving on committees may be valuable, that is not necessarily the same as accomplishing things. I know that may initially sound odd, but we probably all know – and have perhaps served on – committees that don’t get much done. And we have all seen – and perhaps been invited into – positions that are largely routine or representational.

Building things, accomplishing things, meeting and setting goals – these are not only different from serving on committees and holding positions, but they often are not as easily described or recognized. That is, while you can easily identify a Board on which you may serve, it’s harder to describe succinctly the work you did to balance a budget or create a program. And yet these latter things are often so much more vital to the institutions we serve.

Why is this a leadership pitfall? Two reasons. First, it’s very easy when you are hiring someone to assume that committees and positions testify to demonstrable and meaningful accomplishment. They may, but they also may not. Don’t let titles and positions fool you. Ask about what was accomplished in those roles. In particular, ask what changed – that is, how has a candidate’s role on a committee or in a position made a tangible, creative, and significant difference.

Second, there is a pitfall here not just for leaders as they hire others, but also as they think about themselves. Will we build our identity on our positions or our accomplishments? Will we find satisfaction in our titles or the in tangible difference we have made? Will we, to borrow a phrase I first heard from David Brooks, think about our career like a resumé – filled with our various positions and titles – or a eulogy – the recitation of significant accomplishments?

One telltale sign of when we have confused titles with accomplishments is the ubiquitous “signature line” many of use in our email correspondence. Name and primary job title or position? Fine. Name, position, and degree? Perhaps, if somehow identifying your degree is necessary. (I am always curious when academics put “Ph.D.” after their name or along with “Dr.”, as this degree is largely assumed in academic circles.) Name, title, degree, and then titles or positions in other agencies – “secretary of this,” “treasure of that” ? I guess I’m just not sure what value there is in listing these kinds of titles and positions except in a (somewhat vain, I would guess) attempt to impress the reader. Over time, I’ve come to wonder whether there is a corresponding relationship between the number of lines in a signature and the ego-needs of the signer, as the bloated signature line feels like lining up all the trophies we we (or more likely our kids) were given for “participation.”

Perhaps not, of course. Perhaps there is good reason to mention significant committees, titles, or positions we are currently holding, but I wonder, when we do this are we perhaps confusing those titles, and perhaps hoping others will do the same, with genuine accomplisments?

My counsel – first and foremost to myself – is to focus on the work, rather than talking about the work, and seek to build things, rather than to accumulate titles. Easier said then done, of course. But isn’t that always true of genuine leadership?