How to lead when you’re not in charge

There are eight ways to drive results without any official authority, say these two executive coaches.

How to lead when you’re not in charge
[Photo: Go to Margarida CSilva’s profile Margarida CSilva/Unsplash]

As the new CMO of a fast-growth direct-to-consumer apparel brand, Jen faced a conundrum. The Goldman Sachs-trained former investment banker was trying to bring data science and analytic rigor to a company that had captured the imaginations of millions of Americans through great design and hard work. Jen knew the next stage of growth would require a more analytical and data-based approach, but she faced resistance among the “instinct first” founders.  


If you’ve ever joined a team and tried to change it from the inside and without any real authority and mandate to do so, you can probably identify with Jen. In fact, at every stage of your career, and throughout life in general, we are all challenged to lead when we’re not really in charge. This is the nature of human systems. And learning how to do this well is what separates those who surpass their peers and go on to lead their own business units or companies, from those who squander their potential as middle managers.

Most of us believe that “leaders” are people who occupy certain roles that come with some sort of official authority. The CEO is a leader. The president is a leader. The quarterback is a leader. We often believe leadership is bestowed upon someone by their role or title.

Yet, when we say people “rise to the occasion” or “take the lead,” we are basically saying that people with no official authority sometimes go beyond what’s expected of them and exercise leadership.

Leadership, then, is not at all about a role. It is actually the act of getting a group of people to do something that is in their best interest, or in the best interest of others, whether or not you have the authority to command those people to do what you want them to do.

At the end of the day, leadership when you are not in charge comes down to influence and persuasion. In our work with aspiring leaders like Jen, we’ve uncovered eight ways to exercise leadership when you’re not in charge: 


Have the Courage to Act 

When utilized well, and alongside the other principles laid out below, having the courage to take the initiative is often rewarded with respect. Most people are deathly afraid of leading without authority, so when they see it done well, most often they admire it. 

Keep the Work at the Center

Harvard professor Ron Heifetz, the father of adaptive leadership, argues that the harder the problem you’re trying to solve, the more people will want to distract themselves from the work at hand. This is why organizations working on hard problems have so much interpersonal politics. By keeping the work at the center, you encourage people to confront the problem, rather than get sucked into gossip and other distractions that keep real work from getting done.

Be Values-Driven and Be Obvious About It

It’s really hard to argue with someone who is driven by a just and clearly communicated set of values. If you help your colleagues see that your interest in exercising leadership is driven by values, and not by self-interest, it is very hard to say no, unless of course they have conflicting values. In which case, you might want to seek other would-be followers.

Communicate the Big (and Little) Picture

Often, the right thing to do (which is most often the hard thing to do) seems isolated from a larger context. Sometimes everyone is so focused on the macro level, they can’t see their ability to make a difference at the micro level right in front of them. Your ability to lead without authority will grow in proportion to your ability to communicate how small actions here and now have larger results over there sometime later.

Tap Into Their Sense of Purpose

Everyone has a purpose. But not everyone knows what theirs is. As a leader, you have an opportunity to help people tap into their own sense of purpose. Do you see an unused talent or expertise inside them? Do you see a new application of an old gift? Can you see a way for them to use themselves in a more meaningful way than they can see right now? If you can tap into their sense of purpose in a compelling way, you can help them direct that purpose and that energy to something extremely beautiful.


Tell a Compelling and Inspiring Story

People get committed to causes, but they first must be inspired by stories. Communicating your vision in a clear and compelling way paints a picture that people can see and feel. The more vivid the image, the more inspiring the story. But you also have to know your audience. Some people are inspired by morality and purpose. Others are inspired by feeling part of something. Still others are inspired by logic. Tell the story that motivates your particular audience.

Elevate Other Leaders

Sometimes the best ideas wither on the vine because people don’t feel ownership or authorship. The best leaders without authority give away the credit for the idea and elevate others into championing the cause. When you put the work at the center as outlined above, you can detach from the idea of needing to be in the spotlight. Who cares who is seen as leading the charge if the most important thing is getting something done. This can also be called “make it their idea.” 

Hold Steady

Another principle borrowed from the Heifetz adaptive leadership model, holding steady is all about patience. Often, we only get one chance to influence a group, and then we have to let it percolate around in the system for a bit before making another intervention. Try to intervene too much or too loudly, and you may become like one of those preachy people on the street no one listens to or takes seriously. Holding steady is about putting a great idea out there and letting people find it, own it, and then share it elsewhere on your behalf. And that’s how you begin to build a movement.

Leading when you are not in charge is a delicate balance of influence and diplomacy. It requires a robust tool kit and thoughtful patience. Jen kept at it and developed dear personal relationships with her fellow C-Suite members. With a combination of the tools listed above, Jen has helped her leadership team embrace a more rigorous and data-driven approach to running the business. As a result, they continue to enjoy a market-leading role in the direct-to-consumer space while many of their peers have plateaued or lost market share. Jen has begun to master leading without authority to the benefit of the entire firm. 

Edward Sullivan and John Baird are respectively the CEO and chairman of Velocity Group, a leading executive coaching firm with operations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. They are also authors of  The Power of Insight, which will be released by Harper Collins in 2021.