To leaders, the English language is a language of qualifiers: “perhaps”; “maybe”; “possibly”; “potentially”. It is a language of disbelief, uncertainty, and limitations.

In a previous article, I mentioned what I feel is one of the most prevalent and restrictive of these limiting words: “just”.

Organizations are filled with “I’m just a…” employees. “I’m just a receptionist”; “I’m just a salesperson”; “I’m just middle management”.

It’s likely that each one of us has said something similar about ourselves, or at the very least, what we were attempting to do: “I’m just trying to get to the end of this project”; “we just have to figure out a way to deal with this”.

Leaders, We Are Not “Just” Something

Every time we use the word “just”, we’re telling people that who we are and what we’re doing is unimportant.

Every time we say we’re “just” something, we’re giving people permission to expect less from us. Our lives and workplaces are filled with extraordinary people who regularly diminish themselves in this way, and in the process, many convince themselves that it’s true.

As such, I believe that one of the simplest but most powerful things we can do to enhance our leadership is to refuse to allow people to diminish themselves in front of us.

I believe that leadership recognized is leadership created, and a commitment to banishing the word “just” from our vocabulary and our workplaces can have a profound impact.

After all, in many organizations, the employees who have the most consistent contact with those outside the organization (and therefore play the biggest role in what people think about your organization) are often those who are paid the least.

And even those who take pride in their job and recognize they make valuable contributions do not miss the fact that their position has been judged as less monetarily valuable.

Often, no matter how hard we try, or how little sense it makes, we cannot avoid allowing our sense of self-worth to be tied to where we fall on the spectrum of financial compensation.

Each of us can play a small role in helping to counteract that phenomenon, and help ensure that that the leadership of those who are too quick to say they’re “just” something is recognized by others, and by themselves.

My Recent “Just” Experience

Recently I was reminded how some of the most powerful people in our lives can fail to recognize just how important they are.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to travel around the world and share ideas with audiences of all kinds. However, I’ve never been more nervous prior to a presentation than I was in March 2011, when I was invited back to speak at my old high school.

Because I don’t care who you are, or how accomplished you’ve become: as soon as you walk through the doors of your old high school, you revert back to the person you were in high school. And let’s just say high school wasn’t the easiest time in the world for me!

There was someone who made my difficult time at high school a little bit easier: a man by the name of Mr. Kiff.

Mr. Kiff was the head custodian at our school, had been there for over 20 years, and was one of the most remarkably kind men with whom I have ever crossed paths.

He knew every student’s name; he was a friend to those who were bullied; he congratulated people on their athletic achievements and on their acceptance to universities.

He even anonymously laid gifts and cards in front of lockers when people lost family members. He took tremendous pleasure in the growth and happiness of the people after whom he mopped up.

As I waited in the Principal’s office before heading down to the presentation (an odd sensation at the age of 35), I was shocked to see Mr. Kiff spot me through the window, beeline into the office and embrace me in a huge hug.

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I told him I couldn’t believe he remembered me after so many years, but that I had thought of him often, and was so grateful for what he had added to my life during what had often been a scary time.

“Aw,” he said, “I’m just a janitor lucky enough to know you before you hit the big time.”

“Just a janitor”.

Our lives and workplaces are too full of amazing individuals like Mr. Kiff who think like that. Who have convinced themselves that they have no right to think of themselves as leaders because of what job they’ve ended up doing, or where in the corporate hierarchy they appear to have peaked.

What’s more, according to the social rules we’ve accepted, Mr. Kiff’s perspective makes total sense. After all, I’d worked hard to get great grades and earn scholarships to good schools.

I’d done the things necessary to win awards, get promotions, and eventually start my own company. I’d made a bunch of money.

With every step in my career, there were fewer and fewer people like me.

The Achievements of “Just a Janitor”

The rules say that makes me more valuable, and that’s what he was acknowledging. Those rules convince us it makes more sense to chase money and titles than it does to chase what Mr. Kiff has achieved.

But what he has achieved needs to be better recognized.

You see, thousands of students have walked the halls of my old high school. Thousands of them have become the friend of Mr. Kiff.

They have gone on to be doctors and lawyers and CEOs – the people the rules say deserve our admiration and respect.

And I bet you right now, if someone said Mr. Kiff’s name in one of their offices, each one of them would smile.

We have come to believe that our value is measured by how well we become one of the few.

Our lives and our organizations are filled with leaders who have adopted that perspective, and as such, refuse to acknowledge their role as leaders.

  • What if we all worked to create a culture where it is recognized that the true measure of our life is how many people smile when our name is spoken twenty years after they last saw us?
  • What if we could aim to live a life, and create workplaces, where that objective is advanced as our primary motivation?

How do we identify and recognize the unsung leaders in our lives and organizations?

I do it by asking this question:  If I was not permitted to consider, wealth, position, or prestige–if those things were no longer part of the equation – who would I look up to?  Whose life would I envy?

For me, it would be Mr. Kiff’s.

Recognize Leadership

I think it’s important that when we identify the people in our lives and organizations who are living their lives in a way that impresses us, we take a moment to let them know they are leaders to us. Not just tell them that we value them, or that what they do matters, or that we care about them…but that they are leaders to us.

Leadership recognized is leadership created, and creating leadership is living leadership. And that’s not just a little thing.

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

How Are You Not Just a Leader?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.