Leadership is an Action, Not a Title

An organization isn’t going anywhere if its leader doesn’t grasp what their role is really about.

By HRH Princess Noor Bint Asem


I recently attended an engaging discussion on leadership at the Institute of Diplomacy in Amman. The event was facilitated by my own IDG team, and, as you would expect, there were a wide range of different opinions and thoughts aired on the question of what makes a good leader. But one thing we all agreed on was that leadership is contextual, and while generalized conclusions are helpful, in the real world we have to look at particular circumstances and situations.

We paid particular attention to the phrase “leadership is a privilege, not a right” by concentrating on the principle of servant leadership. This concept, which is embodied in the “Serve to Lead” cap badge of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, is right at the very heart of the changing business leadership patterns.

Surely the time is rapidly approaching where business leaders can no longer hold their position purely because of their title. We are experiencing a fundamental shift in organizational culture where we’re transitioning from linear hierarchies to flatter, more agile consensus driven structures. The command and control structure is giving way to empowerment where employees regard themselves as members of a team not as subordinates continually being told what to do. This principle is well understood and adopted in the West, but becomes more difficult to apply the further east one travels because deference to authority and hierarchy is written into the DNA.

The best leaders are those who recognize that the privilege of leadership requires them to run an organization where they serve those they are seeking to lead. Their efforts aren’t only directed at moving the organization forward in terms of strategic focus, but also in developing and caring for their people. Without winning the hearts and minds of their followers, the corporate objectives might be met in the short-term, but given the shift I’ve already referred to, I question whether this will be sustainable.

I mentioned followership during the event. This concept is poorly understood, perhaps because the term implies some form of subservience. But it shouldn’t, because effective followership is a vital ingredient of effective leadership. They are two sides of the same coin, and people should recognize they can be a leader one moment and a follower the next, particularly in a team context.

An effective follower isn’t a yes man, it’s somebody who’s prepared to support the leader by questioning his decisions in a constructive attempt to ensure the organization stays true to its values. Given the recent financial crisis in the West, where was the critical thought amongst the so called independent directors to avoid such blatantly wrong decision making? Have these lessons been learned, or are we just waiting for the next major crisis to happen? Of course legislation can partly help in setting the parameters within which organizations have to organize their affairs. But ultimately it’s down to the value system and integrity of the leaders as individuals, and their leadership in a cultural sense to steer the organization in the best direction, both ethically and strategically.

It’s all about people. This might sound like a cliché, but in fact it’s never been more true. Leaders have to be authentic and value-driven. They have to serve their people in order to gain the privilege to lead. Leadership is an action, not a title.