Leading without authority

I was at a client recently and had a great conversation with a team member about leadership. He was an IT application owner, which in this case meant that he has the primary responsibility for both the care and feeding of a software application as well as acting as the liaison between IT and the business folks who are its end-users. In the course of our talk, he expressed a desire to move beyond his current role and become a leader at the enterprise level, so we shared our thoughts about the process we were both on to do that very thing someday.

The talk reminded me that you can’t wait until you’re given a leadership role to begin leading–you have to start the moment you decide that leadership is something you want to do, and the official title will come later.

After all, if you can’t lead without an official title, how will you do so once you get it? The mantle of authority doesn’t convey leadership abilities, it conveys the authority to tell others what to do and expect them to do it. But the vision to know what should be done and the ability to get people excited to do it–you need to be able to do both of these before formal authority is going to be of any real use to you as a leader.

For the client team member I was talking with, this meant organizing a grass-roots user group for his application so that business stakeholders from across the organization could come together and share their experiences with the technology and the business problems it helped them solve. I encouraged him to go further and evolve this user group into a more formal center of excellence (COE) focused on the core business domain of his users (in this case, customer communications). Such a COE could be instrumental in formulating policies and procedures, defining standard enterprise requirements (business and technology), and training and educating the rest of the organization about its domain.

If he succeeds at driving this kind of organizational change in his current position, think of what he’ll be able to do when he’s given a more formal leadership position. But part and parcel of why he would be able to succeed in a formal leadership role would be because he had already done so much informal leading–that’s the catch. Being a leader and having a leadership title are two different things: one has to be given to you, the other you have to decide to do, no matter what your current title is.


2 Responses

  1. I think you’re missing an important point at the top of your article. I view an effective leader as someone who defines their own success by the success of those he leads. If you really believe in that quality, all the things you mention happen organically.

    I agree with your advice about forming COE but I have found them difficult to maintain over time. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be undertaken, just be prepared for all the issues with managing diverse self interests.


    • John,

      I think you’re absolutely right about defining success through the success of others: all the best leaders I’ve had the good fortune of working for did so.

      And in terms of COEs generally, managing all those stakeholder interests is definitely a challenge. I’ve written some on COEs on my other blog. Here’s a link to some posts if you (and others) are interested: http://bit.ly/djz9Po.

      Thanks for contributing!



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