You Don’t Need Authority to Lead

Leading without authority is a tough job. It requires skill, courage, patience, and often a little luck.

Watching a skilled leader in action is always instructive. It’s particularly interesting when the leader doesn’t have any formal authority to accomplish the task at hand.

While there are no sure-fire tricks to make it easy, there are things you can do to get better results. Here are five that are at the top of my strategy list when I find myself in that position.

1. Build commitment

Why should people be excited about this project? Why should they care? If you are unable to answer these questions, this is the place to begin.

One way to do this is to ask your team members why they wanted to be part of the project. If it was assigned to them, then ask how they can make the best of it. In other words, what would make this project worth their time?

2. Start facilitating

Group work usually requires people talking to each other. Instead of trying to be the smartest person in the room, start managing the discussion.

Invite people into the conversation, summarize what you’ve heard, ask process questions. The group needed the help, and you filled it. That’s how leadership happens.

3. Address resource constraints

Organizations are notorious for assigning people to projects without relieving them of other responsibilities. Not surprisingly, people become overloaded and are forced to prioritize.

When the resource crunch results in a decision between something the boss wants and something a project team leader wants, most people choose the boss. Help the people on your team establish boundaries with their bosses so that they can commit to the project.

4. Organize the chaos

When there is no formal leader, the path forward is unclear. If this state continues, confusion quickly increases and with it people’s discomfort. You don’t have to come with the answers, you simply need to make a few observations and ask the right questions.

For example, you could comment that “Our group would likely do better with a leader, what do you think?” The next question is obvious, “How will we choose the leader?” Just by asking the question, you will immediately be viewed as a top contender for the job.

And even if you don’t want the formal position of leader, you will remain in a better position to continue exerting leadership within the process.

5. Expect follow-through

You might not have formal authority, but this doesn’t mean you have to lower your expectations. When someone says they will do something, expect that it will be done.

If it does not get completed, find out why. Raise this issue with the team or individual. Do not overlook it or accept it. Doing so simply makes bad behavior acceptable within the team. Expect more and you are likely to get more.

Step up

When you’re part of a group that needs leadership, and nobody has been formally appointed, help out. Fill the role. These strategies will help you earn your team members’ followership.

If you want a bunch of your leaders to learn these skills in a hands-on way, let’s talk. I can lead a workshop that will help them practice.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce is a speaker, consultant, writer, facilitator and coach. Since 1996 he's helped workplace teams improve performance.