Leaders Aren’t Defined by Labels

Clemson Tigers logo

Are you a college football fan? If so, you undoubtedly watched the championship last week. The game featured the defending champions, the University of Alabama, versus the Clemson Tigers. Alabama is one of the all-time greats of the sports, winning numerous championships. Clemson usually has a good team, but not a championship caliber team. Alabama won their last championship (of many) last year. Clemson won their last (and only) championship 35 years ago. It was a bit of David versus Goliath (and a rematch of last year’s championship game in which Alabama beat Clemson). In fact, you weren’t alive the last time Clemson beat Alabama. The year was 1905. All that changed last week. Clemson dethroned Alabama for the title. And Clemson fans went crazy. I don’t blame them. I did too.

Are you one of those fans who gets all caught up in your team? If the Patriots win the title, you feel better? If Manchester United wins the championship, you’re better looking? If the Yankees win it all, you’re more intelligent? You know those kinds of fans, right? Even if you’re NOT one, you know someone who is. And they’re obnoxious (even if they pull for your team). They somehow believe that their worth as a person is connected to the success of their team. The better their team does, the better they feel, the higher their self-worth. In the end, it’s a label they wear. I’m an Alabama fan. I’m a Clemson fan. I’m a Penn State fan. I’m a Chelsea fan. I’m a Warriors fan.

You know what’s worse than an obnoxious fan? An obnoxious fan that jumps on the bandwagon. You know the kind. They always pull for the team that most recently won the championship. They pull for Leicester, the Cavs, the Broncos and the Cubs. They’ve never pulled for those teams in their life, but they’re the first to buy and wear the championship hoodie.

Sports aren’t the only type of label. How about schools? I went to Stanford. I went to Yale. I went to INSEAD. I went to Harvard. As if somehow going to those schools makes one smarter. Really? There are many reasons why one student was accepted and another was not. It’s only partially intelligence. Socio-economics play a role. So does test prep. So does having connections at the school. Not all kids who graduate from the Tier 1 schools are more intelligent than those who don’t. It’s a label. When you’re 30 years old, no one cares that you went to Harvard. When you’re 40 years old, no one cares what your SAT scores where. It’s sad, but I’ve had job candidates who have been out of school for 20 years tell me their ACT score, as if I cared. It’s a label. I care about their fit on my team and what they can do (based on the last 20 years of their work experience).

On the reverse side of things, sometimes people let labels hold them back. I went to a community college. I’m male. I’m female. I’m Asian. I’m African. I’m Caucasian. I’m over 50. I’m a teenager. I’m tall. I’m short. I have blonde hair. I have black hair.

Great leaders don’t allow labels to define themselves. AND they don’t allow labels to define others. In 30 years of corporate life, I’ve had great employees that came from Tier 1 schools and public universities. I’ve had great employees that were Asian, African, European, Middle-Eastern and American. I’ve had great employees that were women and great employees that were men. I’ve had great employees over 50 and great employees under 25. You get the point. It’s not about the label. It’s about YOU!

It’s great to know someone’s Myers-Briggs type. It’s great to be a fan. It’s great to take pride in your heritage, ethnicity, race and gender. But don’t take it to the extreme. Don’t take too much pride in your labels. And don’t judge others by their label. That includes you. Don’t limit yourself or allow others to constrain you based upon a label (regardless of whether the label is deserved or not). Great leaders aren’t defined by labels.

When I was attending Clemson, I used to walk to the home football games. My apartment was close to the stadium, Death Valley. I could walk out my front door and be in a stadium that held 80,000 people within 2 minutes. It was great. My future wife, sister, and future brother-in-law would tailgate in my front yard and then we’d walk to the game together. We wore orange and pulled for the Tigers. Last week, they won the national championship. And I’m getting a shirt, perhaps even a hoodie commemorating the event. But I won’t be defined by being a Clemson alum or by being a fan of the national champions. After all, I didn’t do anything directly to help them win the game. I didn’t play on the team. And I’m not a coach or a trainer. I’m simply a fan and a graduate. I’ll wear my orange proudly, but I won’t let it define me. And I won’t let it keep me from hiring a South Carolina grad (our arch-rivals) if they’re the most qualified. I’ve worked with some great Gamecocks in my life.

Have a great week and remember to avoid defining others by labels, including yourself!

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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One thought on “Leaders Aren’t Defined by Labels

  1. I have observed you living this philosophy – not judging based on labels – giving everyone a fair chance.
    Also I have written the part of the article about fans – obnoxious, band wagon – in my mind several times. What I often want to do is ask the “fan” what year they graduated? I can understand a little better the “graduate” being pretty hyped up. (Glad we got that off our chest.)
    Congratulations to you Clemson Tigers.

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