How to Lead Without Authority: 4 Easy Strategies and 1 Hard One
It is common to confuse authority with leading. The work of an authority figure is to provide direction, order and protection for the clan of people who are following her.
Leading is much different. Leading is a choice not a role or position. Leading is an activity and comes alive through action and movement. The work of leading is about mobilizing people to take on difficult challenges when the leader lacks commanding authority.
Choosing to lead is harder than exercising authority.
How do you lead without authority? Whether we’re trying to work with colleagues, vendors, customers, community groups, families or just trying to earn our stripes as leaders, it is wise to have a handful of strategies for different scenarios.
To help you towards that end, here are four “easy” ways and one “hard” one anyone can use when attempting to lead by influence.
- Lead With Questions
You may not be the one “in charge”, but you can always lead with great questions. Try out a few of these and see how they can change the course of an entire conversation or meeting:
- What if…?
- Have we considered…?
- Can you help me understand what you mean when you say ___?
- What have we possibly overlooked?
- Who else should we invite to be part of this?
- Is the issue we’re talking about here the real issue?
- What must be done first?
- Can we describe what success looks like for this project?
- What can I do to help?
- Compared to what?
- Lead By Taking Responsibility
Step up. Speak up. Brave up. Embrace responsibility even if you are faking it at first. Is it really fair to expect people to follow you and trust your ideas if you seem unsure of yourself or unwilling to accept full responsibility? Ask to take on new projects. Dream up a new initiative.
Mess up, own up and describe what you learned from the experience.
Get results. Improve a system that already exists. Get bigger results. Offer to participate on an existing project. Offer to recruit more help. Or combine points #1 and #2 and take responsibility for asking the tough questions.
- Lead By Answering WHY
When you’re the person consistently answering WHY questions for others, people begin to instinctively lean on your insight.
Why is this project important? Why are we doing it this way? Why me?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, go back to point #1 and lead with questions, so that you can gain a deeper understanding and begin articulating with clarity for others. Why? Because leading without authority is all about your ability to have a positive influence on the people around you and mobilize them to do the hard work of changing beliefs and realizing more potential.
- Lead With Enthusiasm
Your emotions are contagious. Think about the leaders you are drawn to. They have vision, passion and a belief in a better tomorrow. That’s why we are drawn to them and want to follow them. They are going somewhere awesome and we want to be part of it. Now think about the emotions you display. Be honest with yourself. Are you a complainer often portraying a victim mentality? Or perhaps even more tragic, are you quietly flying under the radar waiting for someone to magically invite you into leadership… sorry, not going to happen. We are drawn to passionate people on a mission that we believe in. Give people a reason to follow you. Your role when you lead is to be a net creator of authentic enthusiasm, passion and ambition.
Keep it real.
- The Moral Courage to Exercise Leadership
A scene from the movie Three Kings starring George Clooney
“You’re scared, right?”
“The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.”
“That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.”
“I know. That’s the way it works.”
It can be argued that the single biggest barrier to exercising leadership is moral courage. What makes great leaders so impressive is not what they are doing but the fact they are doing it at all. The principle of courage is not meant to be an inspirational point but simple logic. You reap the benefits of what you actually do, not what you hope to get around to doing some day if it is convenient and you are not too busy.
Choosing to exercise leadership when you don’t have authority is an edge for most of us. It is more edgy if we try to do it alone. If you choose to lead, it will help if you know your blind spots, what activates your buttons, and what shuts down your critical thinking. You will have lots of opportunities to face those moments.
Your response time is shortened by following a practice of self-reflection, building alliances with people who will tell you the truth, help you think through hard decisions and support not just your actions but help you find your growth edge.
Leadership grace is not found in being perfect. It is experienced through your speed of response.
That’s the way it works.