Leading When You’re Not In Charge


Leading When You're Not In Charge

Leadership responsibility does not always come with authority. In the modern workplace many tasks and projects are the effort of cross functional teams. Project managers, team leads and product owners can find themselves in situations where they are accountable for the delivery of a key task but do not have the authority of a manager. They even may have the responsibility to lead a working group or project through to completion but not have a position of authority within the organisation. Some may even find themselves leading a team with some members in a more senior position than they themselves and in some instances the members may even be the person to whom the leader reports to.

In other instances team members may find themselves reporting into or being managed by a boss that is not well positioned to understand the complexities of a particular area or that may simply need to be influenced, guided or directed by the team member themselves. It is not uncommon for team members to find that they are in a position where they need to ‘lead up.’ That is to say that the team member needs to influence the official manager or leader in the direction that the task requires. There are many instances when the manager is not a skilled or gifted leader or may be devoid of any leadership traits entirely. In these instances, team members with leadership skills step up as the unofficial leader facing the demands of the task alongside the extra challenge of having to lead when you are not in charge.

The reality is that leaders lead regardless of the position they hold. Those who wait for official recognition, the badge on the big seat behind the fancy desk in the corner office before they lead have misunderstood what true leadership is really all about. Leadership is not about position nor power and waiting for either to come along is actually a failure of leadership. The true leader does not wait but gets on with the task in hand and sets about motivating, inspiring and influencing all of the key stakeholders.

Leaders are people with a clear sense of purpose. Purpose brings an understanding of the significance of timeliness. Timeliness in decision-making, knowing the difference between the necessity to act now because hesitation will be too costly and knowing the right time to delay in order to act at the moment of maximum opportunity. Purpose informs the leader of what to communicate, when to communicate and to whom they should communicate. It is purpose that shapes vision and it is vision that guides strategy. It is purpose that engenders the imperative of clear direction and clear direction that drives a determination to make things happen. You don’t need to be in charge to have purpose.

Leaders are passionate. Passionate about their people, their product or their project. Passion for people means looking out for their well-being, it means understanding their skills and gifting and how they fit into and compliment the team as a whole. Passion for a product or project is about excellence. It’s about doing the right thing in the right way at the right time. It is passion that delights customers, motivates team members and produces quality products or service. You don’t need to be in charge to to be passionate.

Leaders are persistent. Persistent in the face of opposition, persistent in the face of adversity and persistent in the face of failure. In fact, for leaders failure is part of the process. Failing forward is the hallmark of a persistent leader. Failing forward is the ability to use failure to help inform oneself of how to mitigate risk or minimise loss or to find newer and better ways to succeed. Persistence is not just about trying again, it’s about trying again better. Persistence is about innovation and invention. It is about thinking creatively to find another better way. Persistence is about realising that when plan A does not work, how to maximise plan B. You don’t need to be in charge to be persistent.

Learning to lead when you do not have the authority can be challenging but it is rewarding. Learning the skills and insights required of a leader at a time when you do not have the ability to ‘pull rank’ and insist that ‘it’s just done’ will mean that your basis of authority does not come from enforced compliance or by virtue of your position. But rather from respect that your co-workers have for you. From how you have appropriately influenced them through your example and expertise. How you have demonstrated purpose, passion and persistence, that in turn has effectively persuaded them to follow your lead. Leaders that have learnt the necessary skills this way will undoubtably make the most effective leaders in the moments where leadership matters. You don’t need to be in charge to lead when it matters.

Jonie Graham

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