Being a leader without being the boss

... and what lights your fire? (copyright by Neils Photography on flickr)

… or: responsibility without authority.

We’ve all been there and maybe you are there today: You feel responsible for the success of an initiative, change process or project but have little or no formal authority to tell people what to do. Or maybe you just have a passion for making something happen (in your organization, neighborhood, family) but you are not the boss who can order people to do it. Well, whether ordering people to do stuff actually leads to sustainable change is a different question. But today I want to talk about affecting change if you don’t have formal authority.

Some of the most amazing organizational changes and innovations come from the belly and not the head of organizations. And some of the most amazing potential changes just live a sad life in the heads of people who never manage to infect their surroundings with them. So, what do you need to do to lead without being the boss?

I think the first thing to do is to give yourself permission. A lot of people censor what they even try, because they think it is not in their job description to rock the boat. It might not be in your formal job description for this specific position in this organization, but it’s in your job description as a human being to try and make your little corner of the world as better place. Or, to look at it more pragmatically: If you ever want to get into a position of authority, you want to be noticed as someone who goes beyond the narrow letters of the job description and achieves amazing things, no matter what your position in the organization.

Discover what you burn for. The most powerful force in leading without formal authority is your own passion. It will guide you, sustain you when it looks like nothing is working out and draw people to you and your goals. Remember, people can freely choose to support your initiative (as you have no formal authority), so being engaging is one of your strongest assets. Achieving things that go beyond your formal authority can take a lot of energy and be exhausting. So focus on one or two things you really burn for.

Understand how influence works in this system. Every system (organization, neighborhood, family) has different ways how members can gain influence. Some typical ones would be: formal authority, seniority, being an expert, having new ideas, being likeable and engaging, bringing in money, being grumpy, being manipulative, being connected to influential people (inside or outside the system), being of the preferred gender, age group, race etc. Study your system, think about the people who seem to be influential, how are they doing it? What makes them powerful? Don’t narrow your mind when your think about this: In each system different people succeed to gain influence with different strategies.

Understand your own influencer profile. Look at your personality, background and position in the system: Which ones of the above  attributes of an influencer do you have already? Which ones can you realistically develop (changing your race or gender are obviously less likely than changing your level of expertise or grumpieness)? What influencer personalities do you admire and connect to? Don’t try to become someone else, rather become your best and most influential self by developing those parts of your personality and position which will allow you to lead.

Understand and develop your influence network. If you haven’t drawn a Net-Map around this issue yet, now is the time. Ask yourself: “Who are all the people, groups and organizations that can influence whether I achieve the goal I am passionate about?” And map all actors, formal and informal links, their goals with regards to your goal and their level of influence. Reflect on what you see: Where do the movers and shakers in this map get their influence from (see above)? Who are you linked to already? What links are missing? What actors or links hold you back?

If you are like most people, you will be connected to a lot of others who are similar to you and few who are different. Let’s say you are a young white male and your  influence comes from being an expert on the issue. I would take a bet that most of the people you go for lunch with are equally young white males and experts, while you have fever connections to people whose influence comes from seniority, bringing in money or making the rules. It’s nice and comfortable to have a peer group of friends of the same kind who share the same ideas. But to become a leader even though you don’t have authority, it is crucial to connect with those who don’t just share your influencer strategy but can bring the missing pieces to the table. Look at your map again: Who has the most different influencer assets from yours? Don’t pick someone whose values you don’t share (like the greatest back-stabber) but just someone who has a different role and personality. Could this person develop a passion for your goals? Or do your goals have a side effect that would be great for this person? Explore. Form coalitions accross organizational or social boundaries.

Connect and share. Now you better understand who you want to join forces with, connect and share with them. Sharing is crucial if you want to have a long term impact: Share responsibility and ownership, access to other network partners and maybe most importantly, generously and publicly share praise once you achieve something amazing.

And finally: Wherever you go, don’t leave your passion at home. Leading without being a boss is a much messier and less predictable process than giving orders. Serendipity is your best friend. Don’t lecture everyone you meet about your goals till they are bored to tears. But be ready to talk about your passion outside of formal work meetings, connect it to other people’s interest in the coffee break, with a stranger on the plane, with a fellow parent at the playground (that’s how I ended up giving a brown bag seminar at Deloitte Consulting, but that is a different story alltogether…) and be in it for the long haul. This leads me back to “discovering what you burn for”. Because that is the only way you will really want to carry it with you all the time.

3 Responses

  1. As you’ve developed into a leader, what has helped you grow the most?…

    Give yourself permission to lead. Even before you are the boss. Identify something you are passionate about, an innovation, change, movement you want to see in your organization and find ways to make it happen. If you wait until you have formal authori…

    • I enjoyed the article very much as I am presently preparing to facilitate a Leadership Training with staff members of a resort and one of the issues that I have had is that Leadership training is generally reserved for the managers and supervisors and anyone with a title but I asked that everyone be in the training and wanted to share alot of which the article is talking about. If we have leaders without title in the organization we will have more successful organizations. A friend said but everyone will act as if they are in charge and I explained to her that one of the greatest quality of being a leader is humility, therefore a leader does not have to be in front, calling the shots to be effective at making things happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: