Leading without Authority

We are regularly asked, by all sorts of people, for advice on how they can take a lead in their company when they have no formal authority or position from which to do so. Sometimes these questions come from very senior leaders who have a global brief but little formal authority in the hierarchy. Sometimes they are from people who feel a leadership vacuum in their organisation but don’t know how to fill it. Yet others just want to make more of a difference than their relatively junior position seems to allow.
 
Many of the organisations we work with are moving away from traditional hierarchical structures that fix positional and management authority through a line system towards something much lighter, flatter, more matrix and more project-based. But how do you lead in a matrix? How do you ensure that short-term project-based teams benefit from the great leadership that the projects deserve?
 
Our starting point in finding some answers to these questions is Impact’s fundamental belief that leadership is something expressed rather than held.

Leadership Action

What distinguishes leaders from non-leaders is the quality of their action - leadership action that can come from anywhere in an organisation or in wider society. It is what they do that counts. It seems obvious, but in endlessly trying to create lists of the traits that exemplify a great leader it is all too easy to miss the fact that leadership is judged on the outcomes of doing stuff - good or bad, successful or unsuccessful.

So one answer to how to lead without the authority is to simply take some leadership action. “Just do it”, as they say. Perhaps it is courage we need, not permission.

As well as courage to act, however, we also need to be able to make good decisions on exactly what action to take. Randomly doing stuff and calling it leadership is, unfortunately, something we see too much of and wouldn’t recommend (although some would consider it marginally better that not taking any action at all and sitting on your hands slowly growing more cynical). So, the next question becomes “how do we make good decisions on what action to take?”
 
Connecting Action with Purpose

We have recently started some research talking to companies about their view of leadership and specifically what it is that seems to characterise the actions of people who are regarded as “good leaders”. A key theme emerging so far is that effective leadership action strengthens the relationship between day-to-day work and the wider/higher purpose of the business, making action meaningful.  Individuals who do this are leaders in their business because they connect action with purpose. One senior leader we spoke to put it clearly when he said:
 
“the people who others seem to regard as natural leaders in the organisation - irrespective of position - are great at articulating and demonstrating our organisational purpose, they align action with that purpose in a transparent, clear and consistent way”
 
So, a further answer about how to lead without authority is to invoke the power of your organisation’s purpose - both as a guide to your own action and as a way to lead the process of weaving the fabric of the company together.
 
Of course this is easier said than done. In our experience, many organisations haven’t got a compelling, agreed and motivating answer to the question ‘why do we exist?’. Missing this vital piece of information is a huge barrier when it comes to invoking the organisation’s core purpose.

Defining an answer to “why do we exist?” is central to the success of any organisation, especially in an age where values, ethics and integrity count more than ever before. “Customers don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it", says Simon Sinek in his powerful TED talk . Simon’s book “Start with Why” illuminates the relationship as he sees it between clarity of purpose and commercial success. It’s well worth a read.
 
Clear and Consistent Communication

Many participants we work with don’t struggle when it comes to leading without authority - they do it successfully on a daily basis. In observing these people, a common trait they share is that they understand the powerful role of clear and consistent communication.

We have seen many people who are regarded as leaders in their teams, their groups, their offices not because of their position but simply because they become a hub around which communication happens. They help others by describing, interpreting and explaining things that are happening in the company. They act as the communication glue that binds teams, groups and projects together. They are not afraid to speak up and others will look to them to make a case, or explain a question. Put simply, they act through communicating and in so doing help others - and themselves - to learn.

The good news is, communicating in this way doesn’t necessarily require highly refined communication skills (although it does help). Instead it seems to primarily require a curiosity and a reflective practice that enables the leader to see the world through the eyes of others and build effective relationships. This deliberate mindfulness or meditative practice builds great empathetic capacity.
 
Leadership is arguably the defining issue of our age; it is the difference between those organisations (whether they be companies, schools, government departments, global institutions...) who are successful and those who are not. But as Charles Handy once sharply observed:
 
“We cannot wait for great leaders to emerge because they are in short supply. We must light our own fires in the darkness.”
 
Leading without authority is no mean feat, but it is a vital part of the leadership landscape that organisations must cultivate and exploit. We would love to hear your stories of glorious success or failure that was full of learning.

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Grahame B

Impact’s Global Head of Communication and R&D