Leading When You’re Not in Charge

Blog Post Breakthrough Results

One of our clients once lamented that, “Everything would be different if I were the boss, and then I’d have ‘the say.’” Nearly every chief executive will laugh out loud when they read that statement; they know that no matter the role, it is the rarest of situations in which one person truly has the say.

Aside from the handful of individuals with the accountability and autonomy that comes with running their own organizations, the rest of us are not in charge. Yet circumstances require—especially current ones—that all of us provide leadership for our companies, our colleagues, and for our customers at an unprecedented level. But so many people question, “How can I be expected to lead when I’m not in charge?”

Too often people equate leadership to position; the assumption is that the person with the most prestigious title is the leader. Ask your seatmate on your next flight to name an executive who provided no leadership and you will have five names before the bird has pushed back from the gate. In reality, leaders are found at every level, in every function, and across every aspect of an organization—from the C-suite to the Janitor’s closet.

The Genesis of Leadership

Consider an issue or problem with which you find yourself struggling and in which you have come to realize that it will take you somehow acting differently than you might normally act for the issue to be resolved. This simple realization can be magical. It provides the appreciation that business-as-usual will not suffice. Said in another way, this is the genesis of leading: making happen what is not likely or predictable.

This is what many of us are asked to do everyday: ensure that the results the company needs, but are not certain, become certain. This is leadership, and it is what makes business work. Unfortunately, most of us spend most of our day managing rather than leading. Our days are about handling email, conforming to processes and procedures, completing administrative tasks, and dealing with internal and external politics. We save leading for when emergencies occur.

The Actions of Leaders

Leaders have two actions—they speak and they listen. Leaders listen for possibilities that are beyond business-as-usual and opportunities that seem unlikely or impractical to the common ear. Additionally, leaders speak in a way that changes the trajectory—said differently, in a way that alters the drift of business-as-usual. Leaders stand for the unlikely.

Leadership starts with taking a stand for something beyond the drift. Leaders speak up when things aren’t working. Leaders call out what others are afraid to mention. Leaders make happen what is not going to happen. Leaders do not worry about being in charge; they are committed to making the difference that makes a difference.

Scott Beckett is a Denver -based partner of Insigniam, an international management consulting firm. Connect with Scott and other executives through the Insigniam Executive Forum on LinkedIn.

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