When your title isn’t powerful, cultivating leadership skills might seem like you’re suffering from delusions of grandeur. Leadership might be the furthest thing on your mind – you never even considered it as a “Core Competency”. Over the last decade, organizations of all types have experienced accelerated change in personnel and structure.
Once upon a time there were only companies with hierarchical structures: lots of VPs, Directors, Associate Managers and tons of bureaucracy. They were massive, and the leadership pyramid intimidated everyone into compliance. And then, small and nimble startups began to beat them at their own game. They started stealing market share in all sorts of sectors and charted new maps for how organizations could be run effectively, without the gigantic org charts that take an entire forest to print. These nimble companies demonstrated the strength – nay the superpower – that is horizontal organizational structure.
New Companies are Fluid
Horizontal organizations are dynamic. They allow people to move into and out of roles as necessary. They require smart people who understand – and this is key – where both their strengths and weaknesses lie. Most people are hired into static roles for their strengths. So when faced with a challenge that exposes their weaknesses, they drive headlong into failure rather than admit defeat.
For obvious reasons, that model is proving unsustainable and counterproductive. Work in dynamic, horizontal companies means you’re valued you for what you can do and not penalized for what you can’t do. It means you’re often asked to step up and lead key initiatives even when it’s not in your job title.
Change Means Opportunity
As the prevalence of these organizations grows, it’s important to develop your skillset in order to bloom where you are and prepare for future opportunities.
So, when your title isn’t powerful, you have to learn to lead without authority.
It sounds peculiar, paradoxical even. What does it mean to lead without authority? Isn’t authority a fundamental, even necessary component of leadership?
Leadership has been viewed, cultivated and exercised within an authoritarian framework for a long time, but there are seismic shifts happening as companies and societies change. Profound and central challenges to the theories of what it means to lead have unearthed unique models for us to pursue. They present new ideas on how to lead effectively in collaborative environments, without authority.
So you’re ready to be a badass who doesn’t need a title to lead? We’ll review three practical principles to lead without authority: Gain Trust, Build Influence and Inspire Action.
Establish Credibility. People talk a lot about not burning bridges, but what about building them? When it comes to relationship infrastructure the bridge of trust is fundamental.
Credibility is earned when you mean what you say and say what you mean. Don’t over- or underestimate your capabilities. If you can’t make that unrealistic deadline your boss keeps pushing, don’t be afraid to respectfully push back. It’s easy when starting a new position to be eager to prove yourself. Just be sure that your eagerness doesn’t get in you into a pickle. Worse than not meeting deadlines is turning in sloppy, half-baked work. Resentment can build when your work gets redistributed and pushes back the launch anyway.
Execute. When you prove your ability to accomplish tasks thoroughly and efficiently, people will naturally begin to trust you. The key here is consistency. It’s not enough to do great day one, week one or month one, you have to show up often. When you are a dependable team player during the highs and lows that all companies invariably go through, you distinguish yourself as a reliable coworker worthy of trust.
Ask for Help. There are a lot of fears and myths about asking for help especially around the workplace, so let’s dispel a few.
Myth 1: Leaders don’t ask for help because they already know what to do, that’s why they’re leading.
We show true leadership when we demonstrate that we are willing to learn. When you ask for help, you open yourself up to others by being vulnerable and letting them know you don’t have all the answers. More often than not you’ll find that sincere petitions for advice create opportunities for deeper engagement.
Myth 2: Asking for help is a sign of ineptitude, it’s not what leaders do.
Asking for assistance reveals that you have more than your own self-aggrandizement in mind. You’re looking out for the good of the team. Your team members get a look into how you approach problems and see that you’re looking to do the job right. When others see you proactively engage in productive collaboration they tend to want to join in. Human nature developed in tribal settings. We’re hard-wired to want to feel like we’re part of a community, so start creating one by asking for help.
Influence is more about persuasion than power – more authoritative than authoritarian. The difference between these is subtle yet distinct. A little to the left and you’re the person everyone avoids taking meetings with. A little to the right and you’re the one everyone complains about. How to distinguish so you get it right? Carol Goman found that when we listen with empathy, present warm body language and reinforce positive emotions, we’re able to be the kind of influential leaders who don’t need authority to get the job done.
Listen more than you speak. Genuine listening usually results in empathy because we gain a more intimate understanding of the concerns facing our audience. To do this effectively, be attentive, allow the other person to speak freely, don’t interrupt, ask open-ended questions, and reflect back what you heard. You may be familiar with the guiding principle seek to understand before being understood.
We all know body language is powerful and can be a key to understanding how someone is really feeling, but how we use it to affect others can be just as powerful. Body language that suggests you’re closed off or combative can be spotted a mile away and instantly sends out negative vibes. Before you approach your colleagues for interactions be sure you’re in the right headspace, so you can make a genuine and effective effort to connect.
Suggestions for presenting warm body language range from steady eye contact and mimicking to the baby pivot, every body is different and what works for some may not work for others. I suggest testing some of these out before going full Blue Steel in the conference room.
It easy to write off the importance of emotion in the corporate office, but studies have shown that even when we are using our rational brain, our emotions continue to have a huge influence over us. Everyone on your team is dealing with issues outside of work and having someone who continues to be a downer doesn’t just kill the vibe, it actually hinders productivity.
Show up with a smile. Remember body language is important and it’s deeply connected to emotions. Be enthusiastic about solving problems. We’ve all had a case of the Monday’s but let’s face it, when you enter a meeting and someone is optimistic about taking on a problem it’s contagious.
Tackle challenges with confidence. Confidence persuades people – whether it’s negative or positive. It provides security where there might otherwise be none. Emotions are infectious and when you’re empowered it’s easy for others to feel that way too.
Getting to this principle has likely taken a lot of time and work. You’ve listened, asked questions and established credibility, and now it’s time to act and get others on board. Doing it yourself is easy, getting people to follow you is a lot more challenging. It takes patience and authenticity.
Act with Purpose
Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle is so powerful and prolific because it reveals a universal human phenomenon, the desire for purpose. Work, especially when assigned as part of a larger whole, can feel abstract and insignificant. When you propose solutions, start with why and you’ll be able to feel the difference it makes in the room. It’s a powerful tool not just rhetorically but practically as well. When we act with purpose we inspire others. Each of us is looking for fulfillment in our work and we feel that most acutely when we find significance and meaning in the work we do.
Keep it Simple
Complex problems need complex solutions right? Not necessarily. When you’re solving complex problems, review the scope of work and break it down into manageable portions. Now that others are looking to you as a leader in meetings and brainstorming sessions, your proposals are likely to carry a lot more weight. Delegate appropriately and know the strengths in your teams and colleagues (remember how we talked about empathetic listening?). When you offer solutions, make sure people feel confident in the portion they are spearheading. An empowered person is a productive one.
Go Robin Hood on ‘Em
Finally, if all else fails, go Robin Hood on ‘em. Robin Hood, or Sir Robin of Locksley, is the quintessential example of leading without authority. He inspired his merry band of men to follow him into the harrows of medieval warfare because he sold them on “the why” by being a straight shooter – and not just with his bow. Robin Hood wasn’t afraid to confront the evil King Richard and denounce him as a traitor straight to his face. He didn’t ask one of his merry men to do it, he led by example. His bravery, candor, and compassion are a case study in how to lead without authority.
It will take time and commitment to master the art of leading without authority. There’s a lot to absorb, so take a few small steps in the right direction and you’ll be amazed at how far you get.