Can you lead when you're not in charge? Is it possible to command respect when you have no authority? Can you be a leader without being the boss?
I’m sure you can think of someone who has an official title but wields their power unfairly or someone who is the boss in their job description but not in practice. And if that’s possible, then it’s also possible for you to be a leader regardless of your title.
Below, we’ll break down how to lead when you’re not in charge. But first, let’s take a look at some statistics on leadership that can set the stage for why you might need to take the reins.
Now we know that companies are struggling to find and develop people for leadership positions, and we also know that it’s entirely possible to be a leader without the title to go with it. So how can you lead at work when you’re not the boss?
A job title does not confer leadership. There is a difference between leadership and management. While it’s a manager’s job to make sure you do something, a leader will make you want to do it.
So, a person doesn’t have to “be the boss” or “be in charge” to be a leader. Even if you’re in the most junior position on your team, you have a part to play in leadership.
Here are some leadership skills that are crucial if you want to inspire your team to achieve company goals:
Once you broaden your idea of what it means to be a leader, you’ll find more opportunities to become one at work.
Everyone has a leadership style. It doesn’t have to box you in. In fact, it should shift depending on the current needs of your team. There has been a lot of talk about what the “best” kind of leadership is, but in reality, what’s best highly depends on the company and the situation at hand.
Some popular leadership styles include:
So how can you figure out your leadership style or develop a specific style even more? Leadership coaching can help, which we’ll talk about more next.
Anyone can benefit from coaching, and if you want to develop your leadership skills at work, consider getting a leadership coach. Unlike a mentor, a coach doesn’t necessarily have experience in your specific industry, and they’re not there to give you all the answers. Rather, a coach has the skills and experience in asking questions that get to the root of your concerns and unearth your goals. A coach then works with you to develop a plan to help you achieve them.
So why leadership coaching? Because we all have weak points that need strengthening, and there’s only so much feedback you can get from your colleagues. A leadership coach will work with you one-on-one and ask the right questions to reveal those blind spots and help you become an effective leader at work.
Now that we’ve established that you don’t need a particular title to be a leader, how can you start leading? By example.
Think of a recent team project you were on. Whether or not someone was appointed as the official leader, there was probably a particular person who emerged as the leader by the way they spoke to coworkers, listened intently, had a clear vision and inspired others to do their best.
For decades, much of the business world lauded “hard skills,” those measurable aptitudes like computer programming, technical writing or certifications. But thankfully, in recent years, the soft skill of emotional intelligence has emerged as one of the most crucial skills to employee success.
And there’s plenty of research to back that up.
To build self-awareness, try this practice that executive coach Christopher D. Connors uses with his clients: First, look at all the tasks you need to accomplish for the week. Then, ask yourself the following three questions:
These questions will clarify the areas where you need extra support and help you self-manage.
If you’re in a situation where there is already an effective leader, then trying to be the leader in that case will only lead to you stepping on another’s toes. Instead, look for the gaps. Where do people need a leader?
Some questions to ask to find a gap in leadership:
One defining characteristic of a leader is initiative, which is the ability to take action without prompting. In F4S, we call this motivation “initiation,” which we define as “your level of energy for action, for starting and getting things going, for 'thinking on your feet.’” More popularly, this is known as being a “self-starter.”
Its opposing motivation is “patience + reflection,” which is marked by ease in pausing, waiting and reflecting without needing to take action. And to be clear, it’s not that a leader doesn’t need to be patient and reflect; it’s just that a leader will need to be more motivated toward initiating.
Initiative looks like fixing the office water cooler when you notice it’s broken, starting a volunteer committee after your coworkers have said they want to volunteer more or researching customer support software when you realize that manually handling support tickets isn’t sustainable.
Someone high in initiation motivation is likely to use words like:
The bottom line is this: A leader doesn’t wait around for someone else to fix a problem. Instead, they step up and find solutions, even if no one has asked them to.
Finally, if you’re trying to figure out how to be a leader when you’re not in charge—just ask. As we saw earlier, bosses like to see their direct reports step up for leadership positions. They’re already assessing their team to see who would make a good manager in the future.
If you feel like you’d like to take on more leadership roles, ask to meet with your boss one on one. Express your desire to lead more projects, and be as specific as possible about what you’d like to do. Make sure to tie this in to your current role and your goals for the future.
Remember, your manager wants to see you grow. Your taking the initiative and requesting more leadership roles will likely impress them.
Learning how to lead when you’re not in charge is an essential part of being an employee—regardless of your level of seniority. There are many reasons why you might need to take the reins, even if it’s not part of your job title. Maybe your manager is ineffective, or you’re vying for a leadership position or maybe your team is just overwhelmed and needs someone to step up.
Whatever the reason, it’s always a good thing to hone your leadership skills.
Your secret weapon to helping your team thrive in the best (and worst) of times.Download my free copy
100+ team building activities your remote team will actually enjoy.Download my free copy