Kevin S. Brame MA
International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute (IPSLEI)
Thoughts and concepts of what is or is not leadership is a topic that is centuries upon centuries old. It is a debate that will never be won. The ideas and concepts of what is true leadership will never be fully agreed upon. Such is the nature of ambiguities which often lead to a focus that, well, is not actually focused. It’s like looking across a valley on a hazy day and there is an outline of surrounding hills in the distance, but the ridgeline is simply not clear.
A hazy dialogue on ideas and concepts of leadership is today, as it was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and so forth. Often the haze is generated based on a
mindset that with a title one becomes a leader or is providing leadership. Titles are often
associated with authority, power, and influence. With authority, or title bestowed, the thought
is somehow leadership begins to exude from the anointed. From many observations this is
simply not true.
Some persons simply assume a title or a rank magically equates to leadership. Some believe
that their position on an organizational chart equates to leadership. Still others believe that if
they have the power and the authority they are therefore leaders. But is that reality or simply a
figment of their imagination?
How often have you heard reference to a gathering of the senior leadership team or the
company leadership team? Who says it is a team much less a leadership team? Is it the
attendees self-designating? Is it the organizational membership granting that designation? Is it
the power and authority vested within those attending that create leadership? Or is it simply
because that’s what the gathering call themselves? Is it leadership by title only?
I have always found a dislike for the oversimplification and overuse of the term leader or
leadership based simply upon organizational position, rank, or gathering of like positions. The
terms are often flung around without regard to what the terms might actually represent.
Authenticity is lost when the assumption is that a title, position, authority, or a collective of
persons creates a leadership team or a leader. In fact, the term leader in and of itself is often
self-assigned and in that regard really becomes meaningless. It is nothing more than leadership in title only.
In my recent organizational observations, I noted that those who self-designate are often out of touch. Leadership by title only creates in the self-designated, a false sense of understanding or reality. Assumption of the title seemingly negates among this contingent the need, or perhaps willingness, to understand and act upon the actual needs present in an organization. Obviously, they are the leader or the leadership team, therefore all is well. Just ask them. Sadly, this often occurs when the organization is crying out for the authentic exercise of leadership. One only need to listen and observe to see the obvious.
Signs of ‘in title only’ are often obvious. Note the designee who pretends to listen to their staff
yet hears nothing. They often spend more time interrupting and talking rather than being
genuine. Ideas are promoted yet action never occurs. Then there is the ‘in title only’ person
who is often drowning in a lack of understanding or competency. Rather than admit a lack of
knowledge or understanding they can be seen to exercise authority and power in the vane of a micromanager. Better to bury my staff in demands for minutia than admit I may not know
what I am doing. Learning to and accepting the value of showing vulnerability and humility is
sadly out of reach for many of the ‘in title only’.
Consider the idea of the post meeting hallway or parking lot conversation where the simple
question is posed, what just happened in there? Statements like he never lets me finish a
thought, or she never really listens to me, or if I hear one more analogy without a solution, I will go crazy. These are the statements of the frustrated and disenchanted. Quickly the idea of the ‘Peter Principle’ is applied to the ‘in title only’ actor by the growing number of parking lot
Moving beyond leadership by title only requires several interrelated thoughts and actions. The
first and most important is that a title is just that, a title. A designation on an organizational
chart that along with a few dollars can buy you a cup of coffee. When the ego boosts the title it often adds to the hazy vision. A cup of coffee will not clear the view ahead. This is a major
challenge in the world of public safety where artifacts of title and rank abound. The more gold I can adorn myself with must make me a leader. The more authority I gain and exercise the more I am a leader. The more boisterous and loud I can be from my self-built pulpit obviously makes me the leader. Just ask me.
Position often is equated to authority and more times than not authority is construed as
leadership. If one subscribes that leadership is about action not position, then those who act
only from positions of authority and power, only allege to be leaders. They are so only in title.
They sit in position of authority and may often cause great harm as they may run without a
balance of accountability. Balanced authority and power are not evil in hands of the right
To hold the ‘in title only’ actor accountable requires accepting the risks associated with calling
out the elephant in the room. This is a form of accountability is often missing in many public
safety cultures from the federal to the local level. There is a lack of an organizational culture
that allows expression without subsequent punishment. To generate openness requires a trust culture be developed and nurtured every day. True trust cultures in organizations are a rare commodity. Pockets of trust may exist but wholesale trust is often not present. An openness culture must start at the individual level before an organizational culture can succeed. For the ‘in title only’ person this is scary and daunting.
Deeply entrenched bureaucratic organizations, for which many emergency services are today,
are prime for “in title only” activities. Why is that? Culture, contracts, traditions, fear, ignorance, egos, or perhaps it is simply a potpourri of causations. It may also be a lack of education and training in the basics of the exercise of leadership and followership.
Take in your personal observations from any number of staff meetings you have attended.
With the “in title only” person or persons present how do they conduct the meeting? Who is
speaking more rather than less. Has anyone, much less the “in title only”, ever been coached on how to be a good meeting participant? How to be an active and effective follower? Has a
culture of openness ever been nurtured? I suspect not and that then creates an elephant in the room that all see but none will address and certainly not by the “in title only”.
Consider the amount of time you spend in weekly meetings. Now, think of the number of
attendees, including yourself, who have never been educated or trained in the art of successful and effective meeting participation. Top that off with how many have ever been educated and trained in the artful process of dialogue. The dynamic process of facilitating dialogue through the deliberate practice of balancing advocacy with inquiry. All basic elements for a person in authority to use in moving towards an exercise of leadership rather than just touting a title of leader.
Implementing actions creating an environment where effective dialogue can occur to address
an elephant in the room takes a confident and willing soul. To the ‘in title only’ actor, this
environmental change is an overwhelming and scary concept. As noted previously, prior to do
so creates possibilities of one having to accept and embrace being vulnerable and exposed.
That is a very frightening proposition for the “in title only” figure. Strength of convictions and
personal values are necessary for successful forward progress. Acceptance that allowing
oneself to be vulnerable and exposed is difficult for the ‘in title only’ actor. However, can true
leadership be exercised if one is not willing to accept the risks of vulnerability and exposure.
The large picture difficulty is when most of an organizations upper echelon lack the conviction
of values and willingness to be vulnerable. The upper echelon fears exposure. They tend to feed on their collective fears and effectively work together to build protections around their ‘in title only” reality. But, as may often be observed, the inner circle will eventually become frustrated with their own collection of “in title only” actors and turmoil will occur within the circle. Parking lot conversations will begin, and strategies developed to marginalize or remove those persons to make room for those the collective believe will be more cooperative or compliant.
Moving beyond ‘in title only’ requires the actor to first self-assess and then self-initiate. Self-
assessment can be tricky if one is not willing be truly honest within themselves. Basic self-
assessment requires a personal inventory of strengths, fears, motivations, and purpose. Below
are eight points of action that a person wanting to avoid being labeled ‘in title only’ may use to grow past a potentially undeserving label. The key to these action items is honesty, willingness, and commitment to self and others.
1. Assess through a deep self-inventory and reflect on personal life purpose and your
relationship to the organizational purpose.
2. Utilize a journal approach and answer to yourself a few basic questions.
a. Why am I here in this position?
b. Why me and not someone else?
c. What do I truly not understand about my position, authority, organization, and
d. What am I willing to do to learn what I do not know?
e. What are my fears of becoming open and vulnerable?
3. Conduct a personal observation of an engagement with others. At the beginning of an
interaction keep track of the number of times you observe others interrupt another
person. What was the need to interrupt? How did the interruption influence the flow of
interaction? Did it contribute or detract from meeting the intended purpose of the
4. Consider how often you were the interrupter. What was the real drive behind your
action? Did you truly contribute or detract from a successful interaction? Be honest in
this self-assessment then consider how you may change that behavior.
5. Think of the position you are holding now. If you were absent the rank or organizational
stature you have, how would you go about influencing the process, the organization, the
6. What is your perception of the biggest elephant in your organization today?
7. What are you willing to do to exercise leadership and address the elephant rather than
hide behind a title?
8. Try sharing your reflections with a person you know will give honest feedback and
challenge your thoughts. Focus on listening deeply to the feedback.
The exercise of leadership is not for the weak at heart. One must be willing to step out from
behind the title. Be vulnerable. Be humble. Be open. One must first learn to exercise authentic
leadership for self before others, even if the process is painful. Adversity and challenges are
gifts one must accept first internally. Remember a title is just that, a title and nothing more. Be
the person that earns the right to the title and all the responsibility and risks that come along.
When that happens others will bestow upon you the respect you have personally worked to
earn and nurture.
The International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute (IPSLEI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit
organization formed in April 2005. IPSLEI provides actionable leadership development programs that produce results.
The vision of the International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute is exceptional
leadership in service to the public safety.
Our mission is to develop individuals, through innovative leadership and ethics education, who exercise leadership effectively and ethically in service to public safety.
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