Leadership Transition: What’s In a Name?

by  Deb Costello  |  Leadership Development

Let me ask you a question.  What do you do?

I am a teacher.

I am also the Math Department Chair at my school.  Did this change how you think about me?

I have been a teacher for 25 years.  I have been the Math Department Chair for 25 days.  Now what do you think about me?

In the last 25 days I have been thinking a lot about leadership and how I am going to excel in my new role.  And I find myself questioning my abilities.  I have led hundreds students to success, but leading teenagers is far different than leading adults and so I wonder, how can I lead?

In the last 25 years I know I have served as a leader in a variety of ways.  I have encouraged my colleagues to excel by introducing them to new teaching and learning techniques as coordinator of professional development at my school for a decade.  I spent five years leading our school toward technological resources by investigating and presenting sessions on dozens of technological tools including smart boards, clicker systems, tablet computers, video conferencing, blogs, social media, and Google apps.  My colleagues now use them all.  I have served as the faculty representative to the board of trustees, written school policy, mentored new faculty, and coached dozens of women training for triathlons.  I have led.

But through the years as I led various groups, I never really had a title, or at least I never had one that did anything more than describe my job so that everyone knew who should do the work.  I never had any money, never oversaw any personnel, and never had any mandate other than to do the best I could, and so I did.

But now I have this title and a budget and a team that needs to work together to be effective and still there is the mandate that I must do the best I can.  So as I begin this journey and a series of blog posts that describe my adventure, I am asking for your thoughts as a leader in your respective community.  My question, in all sincerity is this. What do you do?  Does a title matter?


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Dan Rockwell  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply


Thanks for your post and telling your story. I’m looking forward to future posts.

Does a title matter? Yes.

Titles matter in organizations where titles matter. Titles open doors and impact the way others respond to you.

Can you lead without a title? Yes.

Thats my two cents.

Best regards,


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Hi Dan!

Thank you so much for your comments! You mention that titles matter in organizations where titles matter. They impact the way others respond to you. Can we talk more about that? If having a title changes how people react to us, how can we as leaders work within this system to continue to lead in the most efficient, inspiring, and compassionate way. I cannot change what others do, only what I do. How can I make the title a means to better leading my team?

Dan Rockwell  |  08 Sep 2010  | 

Hi Deb,

Titles cause others to:

Lie to you. People will tell you what you want to hear. That means leaders have to ask penetrating questions to get to the bottom of issues or to receive insightful feedback.

Provide a base-line of respect from colleagues and subordinates. In this case people respect the title (conform to instructions/defer to decisions) without you earning their respect.

How can a person leverage a title as a means to lead a team? One way is to use the title/position to aggressively protect and publicly stand behind the team. You may disagree in private but in public and before others using position to protect galvanizes loyalty.

My 3 cents…

What thinkest thou?


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  | 

Thank you Dan. I love the idea of building loyalty. I guess that will take time. The opportunities to stand behind people in a public forum are not always plentiful. I think I have a great team and am happy to say so publicly. I also think we can be better. I am happy to tell them that privately. I am hoping that over time I can earn genuine respect and loyalty based not on my title, but due to their belief that I act in their best interests in every way. I struggle sometimes to balance what is in the best interests of my team with those of the constituents we serve and the organization we work for. A tricky high-wire act…

Do you have this same struggle?


Dan Rockwell  |  08 Sep 2010  | 


First off let me congratulate you on your skill at creating a conversation. You are taking me to school on this one. :-)

The struggle I have with teams is keeping them mission focused and vision driven. It’s easy for them to bog down in details and/or work in ways that enhance their own comfort rather than serving the organization. I think teams populated by talented individuals gradually and unintentionally focus on themselves.

I’ll add that few things are sweeter and more exciting than a vision driven team. It’s a thing of beauty.

Best regards,


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  | 

This is a great response Dan, one that brings me back to my core and the goals I set forth for me and my team this year. I am blessed to be in a community with a strong vision and a clear mission. I know that when faced with a decision, I can turn to these statements and the decision will likely make itself. This will also help me in making decisions that my colleagues will not like. If I can help them understand that they are made in keeping with the mission and vision for our community, perhaps they will accept them more willingly, even if they are not happy about it.

As for taking you to school I can only laugh. It is all of you that are teaching me today, and I so appreciate the genuine input, time, and direction you have given. I hope you will continue to join in this conversation and respond with your insights to the many leaders joining me on this journey!

Jay Ehret  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Absolutely a title matters.

A company reveals who it thinks about business and its employees by the titles it assigns. People reveal their personalities by the titles they choose. Titles dictate how we think about our jobs and they guide our actions.

Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Really interesting idea Jay. I think it is very true that you can tell a lot about a person and a company by the titles they choose. Do you think that if I ignore my title, in essence deemphasize the title in exchange for working more closely with the team, I will be a more or less effective leader? I have never really been a fan of titles in the past, but now here I am with one. It has changed my focus and my responsibilities in a significant way. I can tell it is changing my relationships with some of my colleagues. So I come back to trying to manage this title and still be an effective leader. Can this title help me become a better leader?

Erin Schreyer  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Deb, great post. I love your authenticity and sincerity!! You ARE a leader – no doubt!

I suspect that a title matters for your students, only because they likely need some sort of heirarchy to maintain order. Outside of that, I don’t think the title matters….at least it shouldn’t.

Mature and experienced adults should be able to discern leadership. It doesn’t just come with title. Rather, that comes with talent and contributions to the organization.

When someone’s contributions take an organization outside of the “norm” and in a positive direction, I believe that’s leading. It’s doing something differently, and it requires courage, expertise and influence. These are all attributes of leadership.

Keep up your great work, Deb. You are a leader, and you are making a difference in the lives of our future leaders!


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for your kind words Erin. I think that I have been able to lead colleagues pretty effectively without a title. Most of what I was doing was assisting them in becoming better teachers, but what I was asking them to do was completely voluntarily. They joined me eagerly because the techniques and technologies were exciting and new. Now as a titled leader, I ask them to do things that are no longer voluntary. I am responsible to them, but they are also responsible to me. I am charged with evaluating and improving their performance as a team. They are charged with evaluating the effectiveness of my leadership. Certainly this has changed my relationships with them. I continue to ponder how I can work to continue to inspire and lead them toward success in this new relationship.

I appreciate your leadership ideas Erin and look forward to this ongoing dialogue.

Susan Mazza  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

It depends on who you are asking and in what context. Do titles matter to others – yes. Perhaps that is why banks give a whole lot of people the title of VP for positions that in other organizations would not merit that title.

Does a title facilitate your leadership? It can certainly help in an organization where title matters and has people listen to you as a leader. Seems to me the pygmalian effect applies directly here. On the other hand, with a title also comes expectations of others and often a quickness to judge and even a propensity to tear down. We want to be led, but don’t particularly like it when someone has power over us.

Clearly you have earned this title and you have grown into this position of leadership. You are beginning from a position of strength.

Whether our title matters to us is an entirely different matter though. Those who hide behind their titles, using them as a mask to project a false sense of leadership or simply a feather in the cap of their ego are likely to fail as leaders of others even if they do great work as an individual. And those who only care about the title because it means more money, also don’t care much about leadership.

It is those who care about making a difference and are committed and courageous enough to lead regardless of their title will perhaps see their title as nothing more than a “tool” of sorts that can facilitate accomplishing meaningful results. Those are the people who become the best leaders of all.

Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

I love your characterizations of the various ways we can use leadership titles, Susan. To be honest, thus far my title has not done a lot to increase my effectiveness. In fact I have a lot more work and a lot less time to actually lead.

Of course I like this idea from your post:

It is those who care about making a difference and are committed and courageous enough to lead regardless of their title will perhaps see their title as nothing more than a “tool” of sorts that can facilitate accomplishing meaningful results. Those are the people who become the best leaders of all.

I would love to work toward being this type of leader and strive to use this title “tool” effectively. Do you have thoughts about this?

Elliot Eoss  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

In a perfect world – titles should not matter. In some organizations they still don’t matter (RL Gore & Assoc. springs to mind)

Unfortunately in the the majority of cases – it does matter.

As others mention above, leadership stands out – but outside your organization or team, often that title is part of that ‘first impression’.

In some cases (and the technology field is one example) it also leads to ‘Title Creep’ – Meaning assigned ‘titles’ that have no valid reason for being there as the skills being performed do not match the title.

As a manager in a small organization – I cannot number the amount of times I have met titles senior to mine that have half of my responsibility.

Thanks for sharing your story!


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for your thoughts Elliot!

So I am curious… how do you manage in the larger community that has these creatively worded titles? Do you find that your initial impressions are changed when you discover the title is not what it implies? Do you find that those with the most creatively worded titles are those most eager to use them, or is that not really true?

I find right now that my title is like someone painted a target in my back. Is there a way to turn the title into something a little less about dodging bullets and more about leading?

Jim Holland  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Deb, Great thought provoking post. No matter how you look at it, in our world, titles are most often associated with leadership or those with some type of organizational authority. In your new role, there has to be a clear demarcation of who(m) has the responsibilities in the role you have. It’s you. While many of us may not care about titles, it does keep some organizational and social order.

The great thing about your new role is all the students who’ve known you as Ms. Costello the “teacher” (a title) now support you as someone who is contributing. Leadership is more about daily contribution and being engaged, no matter whom you work with.

Enjoy the journey and keep up posted.


Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

I love how you have made me think here Jim. I never really considered how my role as department chair would affect my students. I have really been focused on my relationships with colleagues and my new responsibilities. I have not changed how I approach the role of teacher and build my relationships with students. It’s as if this title is a hat that I thought I could take off. But maybe I can’t even with them. The fact that I have this title does likely impact them in some way. It will be interesting to see how they interpret it in the coming weeks and months.

Would it matter to you if you were being taught by the department chair? How does this change your perception of the course and the teacher?

Lori Meyer  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Dear Deborah,

Thanks so much for sharing your insights. To your question as to whether a title matters: Titles can mean many things, both personally and professionally, and I would say that the value we ourselves place on the titles we have in our work can have a huge impact on how we see that work. A title can be:

— An administrative identity that tells your colleagues where you are in an organization

— A label that identifies a particular level of expertise you’ve reached

— A label that communicates accomplishment; obstacles overcome; goals achieved.

However, the hardest lesson I’ve learned is that the connection between a title and actual leadership is not always easy to make. While a title can have a specific definition in an organization, and a particular title might imply leadership, maintaining a parallel between the two can be a daily challenge. Titles are generally static; leadership is fluid. The title itself, once given, is there in the background, but being a leader is a series of ongoing questions.

— How do I see my title in terms of how I can best lead in this situation?

— How do I define leadership right now in terms of my own values?

— What can I do today to inspire, guide, and serve those I am leading?

Deborah Costello  |  08 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thank you so much for your insights, Lori. I especially like the last part of your post and want to comment on each idea:

– How do I see my title in terms of how I can best lead in this situation?

Maybe you mean I should consider the situation in determining whether to respond as the titled leader or as a colleague? In fact this determination is very difficult for me. I have been a friend and colleague of some of my team for 16 years. Knowing how to act and react in each situation is tricky for me sometimes. Do you have thoughts about how to navigate this?

– How do I define leadership right now in terms of my own values?

I feel a little stronger here, as my values and that of my community are very clear. My decision-making behavior comes from returning to these core values. That makes a lot of decisions clearer, but still sometimes difficult.

– What can I do today to inspire, guide, and serve those I am leading?

This is the idea I would love to have an answer to. I believe every day is an opportunity to try again, but sometimes I don’t know what to do today. I don’t know what you do Lori, but I wonder, do you have innovative ideas that you have used to insire, guide, and serve those in your own life?

I appreciate your thoughts on these questions!

Monica Diaz  |  19 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Hey, Deb! I loved this post. You shine right through it! I believe that a title does not MAKE a leader, but it should not hinder your leadership either! It’s funny what happens to us when we get labelled differently. I wish you the best of luck in your new responsibility and, knowing you, I am sure you will excell at it. Leading adults is different that leading teens in many ways, but in the deepest, leading sense, it is not. It requires you to be true to yourself and your passion to teach and bring the best to students. It requires the courage to stand up for what you believe and say it clearly. I suspect you have had plenty of practice at that. Upon taking a new role, always bring you passion and commitment with you and be brave. The rest, will come…

Deborah Costello  |  20 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thank you so much for your support Monica. Labeling theory suggests that we become what we are labeled. Unfortunately my label is not “good” department chair or “excellent” leader. I am going to have to work on that. Each day has truly been an adventure in learning and I am grateful for my colleagues patience and enthusiasm. I am working hard to ensure that we will make an amazing team.

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