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Who is the Real Leader?

Is it someone with a specific title, a handful of direct reports, or just a lot of experience? As organizational hierarchies fade and teams become more wide than they are deep, the need to lead without formal authority is on the rise.

One mistake I see a lot high potentials making is waiting to lead. Waiting until they have a title, the ability to hire and fire, or a corner office before they start leading.

That’s backwards. We’ve all heard the age-old saying, “fake it until you make it.” I’ll go one step further and quote Amy Cuddy, “Fake it until you become it.” If you want to be seen as a leader, don’t wait until you get promoted, act like one now. Here are 5 ways to lead without formal authority:

  1. Listen Mindfully

Contrary to popular belief the leader is not always the loudest voice in the room. Often, when people are trying to take on more authority, they assume they need to speak more. Instead, listen more. In “The Zen of Listening” by Rebecca Shafir, she notes mindful listening can boost your self-esteem, help you retain information, and increase your attention ability. It creates a connection, and when a deep listener speaks, people listen.

  1. Prepare to Add Value

Most people go to meetings to receive information, and half the time we don’t show up mentally until after the meeting is well under way. Instead, think in advance about how you can add the most value. That could be coming up with great questions, or perhaps you can offer to introduce a subject that you have expertise in. Maybe you want to share a brief update on behalf of your work, or your team. Forethought takes you from reactionary to strategic.

  1. Inspire Others

People are looking for that meaning and they gravitate to those who provide it. When you speak to your colleagues, be specific about the impact they have on customers and others. Make a point to let people know why their work matters. You’ll improve focus and motivation for both of you.

  1. Give Great Feedback

Excellent feedback is specific, insightful and actionable. It doesn’t always have to be positive. For example, “This proposal isn’t compelling” is a critique. Better feedback is, “I know you want to win this one.  I suggest adding more examples of specific ROI to help the client see the value quickly.” Lots of unsolicited feedback is not leader-like. Providing specific actionable feedback when asked increases your influence.

  1. Ask for Help

It can be humbling to ask for help. But asking for help early is more leader-like than struggling and making mistakes. When you ask for help, be specific and let the other person know what impact their help will have. For example, if you’re working on a product launch, ask a more experienced colleague, “Can you share the decks from past launches and spend a few minutes talking with me about what works and doesn’t work here?” Past intel will jumpstart your thinking and demonstrates your thoroughness. Afterward make sure you colleague and others know how much it helped.

The world needs good leaders right now. Don’t wait until you have the title or the salary or the courage. Start now. Someone who’s actively trying to be a good leader is better than someone who isn’t trying.

Want more tips? Check out our LinkedIn Learning course, Leading without Formal Authority.