Leadership Without a Title

We often think of leadership as positional. The boss is the leader by right of title.

But often, leadership is grounded in the creativity and drive of an individual. Someone sees a need and attracts others into a process to foster change.

For many leaders of this sort, the journey begins with a single decision.

One example came in 1992 in the form of a child sitting in Dr. Lynn Mouden’s dental chair in Kansas City, a child with facial injuries indicating abuse.

Lynn Mouden is currently the director of the Office of Oral Health for the state of Arkansas and has an extensive professional and technical résumé. He serves as the state’s “alpha dentist” based on his position.

But his response to that child in 1992 gave Mouden the opportunity to lead in a more influential way. He was surprised to find that his call to the state authorities was met with a less than purposeful response.

Dentists are trained to recognize signs of abuse because it so often involves injury to the face and jaw. He was surprised to find by visiting with other dentists in the area that they reported having never seen a case of abuse and wouldn’t know what to do if they did. As it turned out, virtually all dentists may have seen abuse or neglect among their patients, but few were properly trained or knew what to do about it.

From that event was born PANDA, Prevent Abuse & Neglect through Dental Awareness. An alliance of dental professionals, educators and insurance companies and a surprising array of other organizations — e.g., Bikers Against Abuse — PANDA now has chapters and activities around the globe. In addition to training, chapters provide resources, intervention, funds and a plethora of support services.

This is not the outcome of a government-funded program or even the creation of a corporation or non-governmental organization. Today, thousands are involved because one dentist was guided by the need and desire to follow through and persuaded others to become involved.

My own experience in developing leaders is that this is the purest laboratory for leadership development. There is no organizational power, no pre-existing support structure, budget, vision or even brand from which to borrow credibility. Like Mouden after his call to get help for one child, a leader must find the skills to articulate the need, find resources to support the process, attract others to the cause, put them into motion and then guide the efforts of the whole until critical mass is reached. Then, a leader has to do something else. At some point, it is time to get out of the way.

Mouden’s official involvement in PANDA today is as an international spokesperson. There is still no official national organization, so he remains the clearinghouse between various chapters and alliances. But the organization has flourished and grown far beyond his personal control.

Many organizations of this sort are limited by their founders’ need to remain in charge. Lynn Mouden, however, has not been the gating factor to the growth of the organization. Instead, while he remains an active contributor, the organization has grown organically as a confederacy of participants.

Being a good steward of the power delegated to you by the organization you work for — or even own — is an important skill. But ask yourself this question: How many of your employees would still follow your lead if you were without the office, the title, the ability to fire or promote?

And if you have the ability to lead, then another question seeks your attention: To what service do you direct your leadership ability? It was a child in need of protection for Lynn Mouden.

For more information about PANDA, visit this Web site.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, April 20, 2009.