Leading without Authority – working without a title

Titles, especially the good ones, suggest that a level of authority and trust will come with them and that people will respect and follow you. But what happens if they don’t or if you don’t have the fancy title? Can you still lead? Leading without authority (working without an official title) is one of the most important skills to master as a young leader.

For much of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have been given titles that suggest I’m in charge. Regardless of how much I’ve known, and how confident I’ve felt, the title on the business card suggested I could speak or make certain kinds of decisions because of the authority that came with my role.

But what everyone who has ever had a title knows, the title doesn’t do the hard work of leading. Only you can do it. Sometimes the title helps. Other times it hurts – depending on the culture and context where you find yourself in a leadership role.

Can having a title really hurt you?

I once joined a company in a senior leadership role that had gone thru several years of layoffs. The rumor around the organization was that the leadership team would meet offsite every few months to plan who they’d be firing next. The lack of trust wasn’t personal. No one who met me had been betrayed or hurt by me. I simply joined a “them” crowd and the “us” crowd didn’t trust me.

Leading without authority

My role (and title) limited the initial trust that I could develop – simply because of the context I had stepped into. It didn’t last forever (and not because I fired everyone that didn’t trust me). But it did take time to build trust with people predisposed not to believe me about anything, including those offsite meetings.

Can someone lead without authority?

The first thing to understand about authority is that there are two kinds – ascribed and earned. When people say they don’t have authority (because they don’t have a title), what they’re talking about is ascribed authority. But titles say nothing about earned authority.

People follow who they trust. Regardless of role. For the better or the worse.

I once took a friend to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed my friend with a medical condition that required some attention and a change to their diet. My friend then chatted with one of her friends. Her friend told her she was fine. Is it surprising that no chance to a diet was made? Facebook is filled with, “I know the media (or government) is telling us one thing, but my friend says…” posts.

All of this is because people follow who they trust. So can someone lead others without authority or title? Absolutely. Simply be someone who people trust.

Five ways to develop trust and authority

Stepping into a different company by way of acquisition, I found myself with a nice title but no positional authority. It meant developing trust with people – all of whom didn’t report to me. Here are the five strategies I used.

Listen more than you speak

Richard Branson highlighted that people who are talking can’t really learn anything while they’re talking. Learning is especially important when you find yourself in a context you haven’t created. Learning where power sits, and how decisions are made, is critically important for young leaders. Not because you want to know who to suck up to, but because it will protect you from making silly mistakes.

No leader can lead if they’ve been escorted out of the building. So pay attention when people speak. Learn to enjoy listening. And embrace the notion that you’ll learn more with your two ears than with your one mouth.

Do what you say you’ll do

Whether you have the same beliefs as Michael Hyatt or not, his clear articulation on keeping your word is helpful. You can’t have influence if you don’t have trust and you can’t earn anyone’s trust if you keep breaking your word.

When you make a commitment, you need to keep it – even if it takes more time, effort or has more cost than you initially expected. Be someone that people can trust to do what they said they would, and you’ll be someone others follow.

Focus on helping

One of my favorite mentors was a leader at Berkeley Lab that wasn’t in my division. But he was friends with my boss, so he was often in our offices. He had no authority over me, in any way.

What I appreciated most about him was that every time he was over, he’d ask about what we were working on – he shown genuine interest. And beyond that, he’d find ways to help us out. He’d get involved and help – even though it wasn’t required. Even though the work wasn’t assigned to him.

As a result, when Jim would ask for something, I’d do it. He wasn’t my boss, but he was a leader I respected, regardless of his title or position.

Be consistent

“The farmer has patience and trusts the process. He just has the faith and deep understanding that through his daily efforts, the harvest will come.And then one day, almost out of nowhere, it does.”
Robin S. Sharma, The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and in Life

Authority, influence, trust and impact all take time. And you don’t always see it developing around you. This requires a level of faith in the overall process that can be hard for young leaders. It’s especially hard because young leaders assume that a title will be a shortcut (even when it’s not).

So be consistent. It may take time, months and years, and then suddenly, overnight, you’ll have the authority you were hoping for.

Care about people

Leading without authority can feel hard and demoralizing simply because you might imagine that no one is noticing your efforts. But what they can’t miss, what they can’t ignore, is how you care for the people around you. Both Steve Martin and Cal Newport agree, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.

But to be clear, I’m not talking about being so good at your job. I’m talking about being good, as a person. Being good at genuine caring for the people around you.

Leading without Authority

Can you lead without a title? Absolutely. It takes just as much work as leading with a title. Robin Sharma highlights 9 important principles for leading without a title. You won’t believe #8. (Just kidding.) But in reality, his #8 starts with leading yourself, and I find that it’s the most critical thing to understand. The five ways I’ve listed above are, at their core, ways to help you lead yourself and become someone who others will trust.

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