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How to lead when you're not in charge (and why you might have to)

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?

Amy Rigby

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.

How to lead when you’re not in charge: Statistics on the state of leadership

  • In the tech industry, in particular, leaders are failing at a high rate. Of the more than 2,400 organizations surveyed in the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, tech company leaders had the highest failure rate of nearly 40%—that’s 20% higher than any other industry surveyed. [1]
  • Many organizations don’t feel their leaders are competent enough to achieve business goals. According to Brandon Hall Group research, “Less than 60% of organizations believe their leaders possess the competencies and emotional intelligence to successfully drive business goals over the next couple of years.” [2]
  • Companies view leadership as important but struggle to develop leaders. According to the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey 2019, 80% of organizations rated leadership as important or very important—but only 41% think they’re ready or very ready to meet leadership requirements. [3]
  • Employers seek candidates with leadership skills. According to the NACE 2019 job outlook survey, initiative is among the top four traits that employers are looking for in candidates. Additionally, about 67% of survey respondents are specifically looking for leadership skills. [4]
  • Most workers don’t want a leadership position. A 2014 CareerBuilder survey of 3,625 full-time workers found that only 34% of them desired leadership positions. [5
  • Women are underrepresented in formal leadership roles. According to the McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020 report, women make up 47% of entry-level employees, but only 38% of managers and 21% of the C-suite. [6]
  • Women of color are even less represented in leadership roles. Women of color represent 18% of entry-level positions, but only 12% of manager roles and 3% of the C-suite. By contrast, white men make up 35% of entry-level roles, 44% of manager roles and a whopping 66% of the C-suite. [6]

Why you must learn how to lead, even if you’re not the boss

  • Your boss wants you to be a leader. As we saw in the statistics above, organizations see leadership as a priority, yet they struggle to develop leaders. Even if they miss the mark with leadership development programs, your boss and your company want to see you become an effective leader.
  • Not all those in formal leadership positions are good leaders. Many in leadership positions are failing at their roles, leaving plenty of room for more effective leaders to step in.
  • You’ll be placed in informal leadership roles at some point. Even if you’re in a junior role, you may be asked to lead a project or committee, which is a great time to hone those leadership skills.
  • You’ll eventually be someone’s boss. Stay in any career long enough, and you’ll likely be promoted to a leadership position at some point, meaning you’ll need to develop the leadership skills to be a good boss. 
  • If you’re a woman or a person of color (or both), you may struggle to gain official managerial or executive titles. As we saw in the stats above, women and minorities are underrepresented in leadership positions. The onus is on employers to create a more equitable workplace. Meanwhile, women and people of color will continue to lead in their jobs, even if it’s not part of their formal title (yet).
  • By leading, you can make changes for the better. If you’re not a leader, you’re a follower, which is fine—if you like where the following is taking you. If, however, you see problems that need fixing and no one is there to fix them, your best shot at effecting real change is to step up as a leader.

How do you lead when you’re not in charge?

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?

Understand what true leadership is.

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:

  • Empathy - How well can you put yourself in your teammate’s shoes without judgment? Do you try to understand where someone is coming from? Being empathetic will help you connect with your team and build trust.
  • Emotional intelligence - How aware are you of your feelings? Can you trace the source of your emotions? Do you also notice and identify what others are feeling? Developing your emotional intelligence will help you make better decisions and support your colleagues.
  • Integrity - Integrity builds trust between you and the people you lead. It means that you are known for telling the truth, doing the right thing and following through on promises.
  • Communication - Being able to effectively convey a message to your team is a key part of being a leader. It prevents confusion and makes sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Encouragement - Remember, what sets leadership apart from mere management is the ability to inspire people to achieve goals. To do this, you’ll need to provide constant encouragement to your team.

Once you broaden your idea of what it means to be a leader, you’ll find more opportunities to become one at work.

Learn your leadership style.

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:

  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Bureaucratic
  • Transactional
  • Transformational
  • Laissez-faire
  • Charismatic
  • Servant
  • Pacesetting
  • Situational

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.

Get leadership coaching.

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.

Lead by example.

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.

Hone your emotional intelligence.

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. 

  • Being able to identify emotions in others can help you be seen as a leader. A 2010 study from the University of Toronto found evidence that people who are able to detect and identify emotions tend to surface as leaders in groups where there is no formal authority.

    The study participants took an emotional ability test, which included identifying emotions in faces in photographs, and self-assessed their emotional skills. Then, they organized into groups to work on a group project. At the project’s completion, researchers asked participants to identify who had shown the greatest leadership. Who did they choose? Those who had scored the highest on the emotional ability test!
  • Being able to identify the source of your own feelings can help you make better decisions. Self-awareness, a piece of emotional intelligence, may also improve your decision-making abilities—which you’ll definitely need as a leader.

    Researchers at the University of Toronto found that, when asked to make a decision, the study participants who had higher emotional intelligence did not allow unrelated anxiety to influence their decision-making.

    Even those with low EI were able to protect their decision from their anxiety if the researchers made them aware that their anxiety was actually unrelated to the decision at hand. See, self-awareness is useful! 
  • Emotional intelligence can make you a better employee. In 2010, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University published a meta-analysis of research on emotional intelligence. Their analysis suggests that high emotional intelligence is linked to strong job performance.

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:

  • “What are the things you need to own and do yourself?” 
  • “What are the things you need to partner with another co-worker, team member or person on to achieve?”
  • “What can you delegate to someone else?”

These questions will clarify the areas where you need extra support and help you self-manage.

Notice the gaps.

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:

  • Which tasks or projects have been stalled? What is the roadblock holding them back?
  • What are your coworkers complaining about? 
  • What desires have your coworkers been expressing lately? Pay attention to statements like, “I wish…,” “If only…” and “I hope…”
  • When does your boss ask for help? Has he or she been asking for volunteers for something, but no one steps up? That’s a prime time to become a leader.

Show initiative.

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:

  • “Take the first step.”
  • “Let's just do it.”
  • “Let's get going.”
  • “Just start.”
  • “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

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.

Ask for more leadership roles.

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.

Feeling unmotivated?

Find out how to unlock your motivation.

You can lead, even if you’re not in charge

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.

Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can help you lead with our advanced People Analytics platform and the world’s first AI-powered coach. 

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