How Do I Lead When I’m Not in Charge?

by Gloria Feldt on October 13th, 2011
in 9 Ways Blog, Gender, Heartfeldt Leadership Advice, Inspiration, Leadership, No Excuses, Politics, Workplace and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

puzzle-person-keyI get a little nostalgic in October remembering my late parents whose birthdays were this month. So when Bonnie McEwan, president of the public interest communications firm Make Waves, suggested I write about how people in middle management can be leaders, I chuckled to think of one of my father’s favorite sayings:

“Everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time.”

That conjures up amusing pictures that equalize people regardless of their stature in the formal organization chart.

But the question of how to be a leader whether or not you have the formal authority isn’t about cutting others down to size. That famous scene from the 1980 movie 9 to 5 where the secretaries, played to the comedic hilt by Dolly Parton, Lilly Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, tie up their boss and make him beg for mercy. It’s sweet revenge in fantasy, but in reality comes from a place of feeling powerless to influence or lead in any other way.

It might be more productive to remember that everybody needs help now and then–even those whose position on the formal organization chart is higher than yours, even if they are peers that you have no formal authority over, and even if they hold a CEO title. As Aletha, a commenter on my blog recently observed, “Steve Jobs kept Apple fiercely independent, but even Apple had to ask Bill Gates for assistance when it was near bankruptcy.”

Here are three ways anyone can lead without being the formal leader:

leadership puzzleValue Your Piece of the Puzzle

The fact is that everyone in an organization holds a piece of the puzzle, without which the full picture can’t be completed. Your superiors need you as much as you need them. Without you, they’d have to do all the work, for one thing. But more importantly, none of their goals can be achieved until your puzzle piece is in place. There is much more mutuality than most of us perceive when we think about working relationships; the idea of teams rather than hierarchies extends way beyond project management.

I asked McEwan, who also teaches leadership courses in the Milano Graduate School of the New School in New York, how she would answer her own question. “First,” she said, “I tell them that they need to change their attitude regarding their own power. They need to view themselves as powerful, in a constructive sense, and understand it in terms of the ability to influence for good. Many of them seem to view power as negative and miss the positive aspects of it.”

That’s not unlike my prescription in No Excuses, to shift our thinking from an old fashioned oppressive “power over” to an expansive and self-empowering “power-to.”

And when it comes to using the “power-to,” the first task is to assess and value what’s already there in our hands or back pockets.

McEwan asks her students to analyze their own personal power bases. She highlights two key sources of power that are within their control: referent power, the power of personality or presence, and expert power, or their abilities and skills to contribute to the work. “Once they understand that they have personal powers that are independent of formal position, they begin to see how they can use those powers.”

Deepen Relationships

In their book Influence Without Authority, Adam Cohen and David Bradford write about the case history of Nettie Seabrooks, who as an African American and a woman felt she had more than her share of hurdles to acquiring influence at General Motors where she worked. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that in addition to the obvious—her quality work–her capacity for cultivating strong relationships and avoiding self-inflicted traps such writing off people who were difficult to work with or failing to notice what others want and what their motivations might be helped her to be effective beyond her formal position.

The world turns on human connections, after all, so it’s not surprising that many experts suggest deepening relationships by getting to know people and their motivations is as key to making things happen regardless of one’s position.

Communicate Authentic Value

When I spoke at the YWCA Tucson’s Women’s Leadership Conference recently, a nurse practitioner approached me with a worried look on her face. “I see where our patient care could be improved significantly,” she said, “But how can I exercise leadership when I’m not the doctor and not the manager?”

It can be frightening to think of telling the boss something he or she might not want to hear, but give it a try. If you have your facts organized and they are evidence based, I’ll bet you’ll be rewarded. (I used to write telling me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not into job descriptions.) And if the information or advice you offer proves to make the team shine, or keeps the boss from stepping into a big pile of it, you’ll build trust and your own sense of empowerment to lead.

Remember, a leader is anyone who gets something done.

As McEwan says, “If you see yourself as the leader of your staff rather than as the follower of your boss, you empower yourself to take action. Perhaps you can’t do everything, but you can do something.”

Most of us aren’t in top leadership positions during most of our careers. We might all put our pants on one leg at a time, but there are many ways to lead.

This post was originally published in BlogHer Career.  Check it and all my every-other-week leadership Q and A columns out there. Got an example to share?  Got a question you’d like me to address in a future column?  Please comment here or e-mail me.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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