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Coach Colene: True leaders make the workplace better, with or without a title

A few weeks ago I was teaching a workshop for a company experiencing big changes. I love working with organizations, because in addition to improving the lives of individuals, I have a great passion for improving workplaces.

Call it the HR geek in me, but I truly love transforming organizations into “cultures of inclusion,” a place where all employees feel valued, respected and supported. We spend A LOT of time at work, and wouldn’t it be great to work at a place where you feel valued every day? Respected on the basis that you are an employee within the organization? Supported to do your job? Yes. Yes. Yes.

During one of the workshops, a participant raised her hand and said, “Colene, that’s great and all, but I don’t have any power to make any changes. I’m just a [insert title here].”

I hate the word “just.” “Just” implies limits. “Just” diminishes worth. “Just” is nothing more than an excuse to not do the work.

I called her on it. I asked, “Do you mean to tell me that there is absolutely nothing you can do to improve the culture of your organization?” She responded with, “Well, I’m not the CEO, or even a director, what am I supposed to do?”

Here’s a secret about leadership within organizations, yes, it starts at the top, but the leaders who are there day in and day out making the workplaces better, often don’t have a title to match. You don’t have to be the president or CEO to lead effectively. In fact, and this is not to diminish the value of any CEO, but you can probable be a more effective leader if you’re not the CEO.

The biggest misconception people have about leadership is the belief that leadership comes from having a position or title. There is a belief that you can’t lead if you’re not at the top. Leadership is not in position, it’s in influence.

What I wanted this participant (and you) to understand is the person with the most influence is the one who wins. If you can gain influence amongst your peers, you will have genuine leadership, regardless of your title. You can lead others from anywhere in the organization, and when you do, you make the organization better. Leadership is a choice you make, not an office you sit in. Anyone can choose to become a leader wherever he or she is. All of us have the ability to impact our workplaces for the positive.

So how do you do it? You learn to develop your influence wherever you are in the organization by becoming a holistic leader. You learn to lead in all directions (up, down, and across).

The best way to gain influence is through building relationships. I’m not suggesting you become BFFs with every person within your organizations, but I am suggesting you talk to people about stuff outside of the scope of their job.

WHAT?!? Yes, I know it’s shocking to remember that outside of the time you see your co-workers, they have actual lives, and do things with other people. Maybe, you could ask them about that. Show that you notice them as an individual as well.

Now, because I spent the greater part of my HR career investigating harassment complaints, I do want to offer this tiny disclaimer… Don’t be creepy! Don’t ask anything too personal. Don’t cross the line.

Building relationships starts with communication. Building relationships at work also builds trust (something I think is missing in a lot of workplaces). Building relationships builds influence. Remember, (positive) influence = leadership.

So, the next time you think you don’t have the power to change anything at work because you’re “just” a [ title], remember, you can always build influence, and you can always build relationships. Start where you are.


Colene Elridge is a trainer and success coach who offers an interactive approach to learning and development. She works with individuals and organizations that aspire to “Be More.” Colene is also a human resources professional and certified mediator. She has a bachelor’s degree from Transylvania University and a master’s from Sullivan University. More details on Coach Colene are available at CoachColene.com.

To read more from Coach Colene, click here.

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