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Five Strategies to Lead Without Authority


Leadership is not some lofty state confined to an ivory tower. During their professional lives, many people will be called upon to lead initiatives and projects. When such opportunities aren’t readily available, certain individuals will inadvertently lead others through example and character. In other words, a title is not the only way to guide others in business.

"Leadership without authority" is an emerging concept gaining traction in social, academic and business circles. In fact, type those three words into Google and more than 6.5 million results pop up. A shelf of books has been written on the subject, and courses are even being taught to achieve its graces. Not only that but leading without authority has been espoused by such diverse organizations as the American Chemical Society and the National Center for Cultural Competence.

The idea is to create a level of freedom in a business organization whereby people can lead and influence others despite having no formal authority to actually do so. The traditional hierarchical structure of management is flattened to allow leaders to naturally emerge and take the reins of a project or lead a group of people. A leadership vacuum occurs in an organization, which is then filled by someone — minus the title. Other times, leaders with specific reporting tasks influence others outside the scope of these responsibilities. In effect, these individuals assume the mantles of leadership without formal titles emphasizing that fact.

The benefits are manifold: A culture of leadership without authority breaks down silos and other rigid corporate territorial instincts, generating diverse opinions. Someone’s passion and enthusiasm may inspire others to join in a mission of relevance to the enterprise, without being directed to follow this individual. And, employee engagement has been known to increase when people feel they’re collaborating with others as opposed to being subservient to them.

Here are five strategies on how you, too, can lead without authority:

  1. Ask Questions. People who ask questions of colleagues and peers are expressing a sincere interest in these individuals’ issues and concerns. By taking the time to reflect on what you hear, you’re perceived as someone open to others’ opinions. A rational, open-minded deportment will inspire people to come to you for advice and support, making you a natural-born leader.
  2. Exhibit Enthusiasm. If you love what you do, let others know why. Most people take great pride (as well they should) in being able to solve business-related problems. Such individuals love challenges and seek to understand their causes and impact before finding solutions. Your enthusiasm in doing the same tells others that you’re someone worth following. People naturally gravitate toward a source of energy.
  3. Seek Outcomes, Not Titles. Leaders typically rise through corporate ranks—up one notch, then another, then another. There’s nothing wrong with this hierarchical ascendance unless the motivation is the title and the opportunity it provides to boss others around. Character is measured by one’s response to failure. The ability to bounce back from a mistake is a sign of true leadership—hence the maxim, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”
  4. Remember That Everything Is Personal. Human capital is a company’s most important capital. To lead without authority requires empathy — an appreciation that fellow employees lead lives outside the business, with family and health issues, financial stressors and all the other ups and downs of life. Awareness of others’ feelings — by being a good listener who is nonjudgmental — is a sign of emotional intelligence that will rally people around you. No one leads alone.
  5. Follow the Leader. Recognize leadership qualities in others. By supporting such individuals, you’ll energize others to follow your lead in support of these people. Coalition building is just as important as calling the shots. Besides, your coworkers will then come to see you as someone interested in the greater good of the organization.

Leading without authority may soon replace the traditional hierarchical structures dominated by old-time “org charts” that determine how authority and information traverse among executives, managers and employees. In today’s fast-paced business environment, such structures are now seen as growth impediments. At the same time, self-service technologies such as social media, mobility and the cloud encourage more collaborative activities.

In this environment, leadership becomes increasingly fluid — a project or task successfully led by individuals without formal titles or specific authority. People simply step up to the challenge, confident they have the wherewithal to take the initiative, with their unique skills coming to bear at times of need.

We all have varied skills, many of which remain dormant from lack of use. By leading without authority, our respective talents are brought to the fore to solve problems and lead others toward solutions. This is not to say that hierarchical management structures are dead and gone; they’re just not right for all work environments these days.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.