Leading When You Don’t Have Formal Authority

Source: \http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/demaio/2009/05/leading-when-you-dont-have-for.html

by Steven DeMaio 2:04 PM Wednesday May 27, 2009

Whether you’re a manager, a frontline worker, or an independent contractor, at one time or another you’ve surely had to influence, or even improve, the performance of people who don’t formally report to you. Experience in all three roles has taught me some basic principles about leading without authority. And these principles work even in roles where you might assume authority is a given — I’ve used them in my work as a teacher.

1. Let your enthusiasm be contagious. For example, engineers who truly revere math and physics,tend not only to build better things but also to motivate other people (whom they often don’t manage) with their love of the discipline — for the intrinsic features of the work. That doesn’t mean you need to be a purist, ignoring all external motivators, to succeed in leading people you don’t formally manage. But if what really drives you is the core of the challenge itself — and you let other people see that — most of them will be drawn towards your goal organically. Even in the classroom, where I am explicitly the one in charge, my passion for the subject moves students much more than any directive I give.

2. Demonstrate excellence without being cocky or solicitous of approval.
Bearing the burden of someone else’s ego is always a turn-off, whether the ego is already big or in need of puffing up. When an ego-driven person is your direct manager, you just hold your nose and do your best to perform in spite of the stench. But, let’s face it, you’re not going to waste your time following someone like that if she doesn’t have real authority over you. Demanding egos have a way of hogging center stage and masking the inherent excellence of the performance. If people sense that a leader is seeking validation, the best she can hope for is muted applause. Needy leaders are rarely inspiring.

3. Don’t be overinvested in outcomes.
Leaders who don’t have formal authority come under suspicion when they act more like a team captain than a curious scientist. Both know that outcomes matter, but the scientist subordinates the importance of outcomes as she leads quietly, whereas the captain — even one who isn’t driven by ego — tends to foreground them. In essence, the effective informal leader is inquisitive rather than watchful. The distinction is subtle, and the scientist approach is not one you should try to fake. But those who truly embody it make better unofficial leaders — and better teachers, too.

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What are your techniques for leading when you don’t have formal authority or, when you do, for leading quietly despite your explicit role?

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