How to Lead Without Formal Authority

Who is the 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.

When Elizabeth and I first wrote the LinkedIn Learning course Leading without Formal Authority in 2016, the notion of leading (despite the authority of your position) was newer, and more abstract.  A skillset typically relegated to scrappy startups in the valley.

Now, leading without formal authority has become an imperative (even for the largest corporate giants) for a few reasons:

  • Organizational reporting structures are trending wider (instead of deeper)
  • In a virtual environment, when everyone is on Zoom, getting engagement and enthusiasm from others in your organization is more challenging (and also more important)
  • In the race to adapt, innovation and courage are required in every single role

Build belief

Belief drives behavior, and behavior drives results. The challenge is, in the cadence of daily business, we tend to focus more on the action items and neglect the beneath the surface feelings that actually drive their completion.

Teams who believe in the purpose of the business will be the teams who are resilient, innovative, and courageous, despite the circumstances. They’re also the teams who get the most done.  When you are the belief builder in your team, you develop camaraderie and alignment, regardless of your seniority.

You can build the belief of your team by sharing customer impact stories, tying action items back to a larger purpose, and rallying everyone around a common purpose.

Differentiate Between Expectations and Commands 
Many individual contributors shy away from putting lines in the sand because they feel it’s not their place to do so.

Do not be afraid to give direction, provide feedback, and push for momentum on important projects or initiatives. Setting expectations around deliverables and timelines helps you and your team perform. Use invitational language and be clear on your ask.

For examples:

  • Command: Do this by Friday
  • Expectations: So, we’re all aligned that by Friday, everyone will submit 3 new proposals, correct?

Oh, and a bonus tip for you formal leaders out there, the innovational, purpose-driven tone still applies.

Model behavior 
If the team you work on struggles to be on time, make a practice of always being five minutes early. If the team has a habit of squashing each other’s ideas, be the first person to stick up for someone else’s idea.

Modeling the behavior you want to see is hardly a new thought, after all, it was Ghandi who said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Yet, when the pressure is on, it’s much easier to complain about others than it is to assess our own part in setting a standard of behavior. Formal authority or not, your actions speak louder than your words.

Don’t wait to be asked 

Instead of waiting to be asked, do the asking. If you’re hungry for more opportunities to lead, ask to head up new initiatives, volunteer to help others brainstorm, and raise your hand when opportunities arise.

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.