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Why your job title doesn’t actually matter

May 15, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
Photograph by James Winegar

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “How do you go from a worker bee to a decision maker?” is by Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics.

Being a decision-maker is not a right of passage. It should not be earned by tenure or assumed by title. This is an old school way of thinking. People earn the right to be a decision-maker because others trust and respect them—because people want their input.

At Qualtrics, one of our leadership principles is to be a player and a coach. We don’t believe in “overseers.” Leaders get their hands dirty just like every one else. The phrase “it’s not my job” is dead, and so is the career of anyone who says it. If you’re on a team, it’s your job–it doesn’t matter what the task is. True leaders make things happen.

During World War I, troops were often referred to as “lions lead by donkeys” because generals were hanging out in the background instead of fighting alongside their troops on the front lines. Historians estimate that thousands of lives could have been saved, if these generals had joined their men in the trenches instead of just trying to lead in generalities.

The new school way of leadership happens in the trenches. Hear me out. Our first engineer at Qualtrics never had intentions of becoming a manager—he just wanted to code. So we hired other engineers to lead and oversee the team. But whenever someone was faced with a problem or needed help, they would always go straight to this first engineer. Even his managers didn’t want to move forward on things without his input. Why? Because he excelled at his job. His peers respected him so much that he became the default decision-maker, despite not having the title of manager. In fact, he shunned the leadership position, but finally assumed the role because everyone was already coming to him for guidance.

All companies, including Qualtrics, should be full of employees like this—people who can lead and innovate no matter where they sit. In fact, our goal at Qualtrics is to provide an environment where the competent can shine over the confident–just like our engineer did. If you want to set yourself apart from your co-workers, wake up in the morning and tackle the hardest jobs–do the things no one else is willing or able to do.

The best organizations know that too much hierarchy kills innovation. Real leaders don’t climb out of the trenches one day and start barking orders from the top. They get their hands dirty and earn the right to make decisions by solving hard problems. Building and sustaining a team with less hierarchy isn’t easy, but it’s definitely necessary. It’s time to realize that if everyone in your organization isn’t a worker bee, your company won’t survive in the new era of business.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: How do you go from a worker bee to a decision maker?

Why this CEO believes you should be more opinionated at work by Sarah Kauss, CEO and founder of S’well.

How to be more bossy at work (in a good way) by Joe Hyrkin, CEO of Issuu.

The advantages of a tough boss by Sunil Rajaraman, co-founder of Scripted.com.

How to smoothly transition from a colleague to a manager by Nir Polak, CEO and co-founder of Exabeam.

4 signs you’re ready to be a manager by Dominic Paschel, vice president of corporate finance and investor relations at Pandora Media.