Leading Without Being A Leader


I find I’m often frustrated with my work and the lack of opportunities I have to take on positions of leadership.  Due to the nature of the company that I work for and the industry we’re involved in, it’s simply not feasible to have finance personnel leading cross-functional teams.  So, I quite often find myself as a team member, but rarely as a leader.

According to John Maxwell, there are different levels of leadership (check out my review of one of his books and a quick synopsis of the definition of leadership).  Even if you’re not familiar with them right off the top of your head, I’m sure you’ve run into them before.  The lowest rung on the leadership ladder is “positional leadership”; someone who is a leader by virtue of his or her position.  All organizations have these types of leaders.  As much as we’d hope that the cream would rise to the top, sometimes the crap rises just as fast.

People who are leaders only by virtue of their position aren’t bad people.  Everyone has to start somewhere, right?  It’s people who rely on their position to continue leading that are challenging to deal with. If those folks don’t attempt to develop relationships, work hard for the betterment of the organization, and train other leaders around them, then what they’re doing is managing.  That’s fine, but as soon as they attempt to influence events outside of the strict hierarchy they’re in charge of, they’re not going to be very effective.

Conversely, you don’t need a position of authority to be a leader.  I’ve met a lot of people in my life who “lead from the middle”.  Those are the folks in the committee who’s opinion you rely on, regardless of who’s nominally “in charge”.

So, what do those folks do?  What do they have that engenders trust and support?  There are three key traits that are crucial for any person who wants to be a “middle leader”.

1.  Sell Your Ideas. Because they can’t rely on their position to ensure that their ideas are implemented, middle leaders have to be consensus builders.  If they volunteer ideas, they have to be sure that everyone will support what they’re trying to accomplish, because they’re in no position to issue marching orders.

These folks identify USPs (unique selling propositions – what does this idea offer that others don’t) and WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) for the group to understand why their ideas are the ones that should be executed.  They’re not pushy, but they definitely aren’t afraid to share their opinions, either.  And they’re always looking for ways to achieve the final goal of the project.

2.  Servant Leadership. Some folks in positional authority think that their job is to approve decisions and delegate all action items to other members of the team.  They’re not supposed to get their hands dirty.  According to management theory, they’re actually pretty close to correct.  But that’s not how real leadership works.

Middle leaders, in contrast, look for ways to serve the group and the group members.  Rather than delegating, passing the buck, or simply keeping silent when action items are being handed out, middle leaders are the ones willing to take on the difficult tasks and the tasks that no one else wants.

This is not fun.  I’ll admit right up front that I’m not very good at this.  The folks that I know who are good at this, however, are the people I’ll follow anywhere.

3.  Lead Conversations. I work with a lot of engineers, many of them with Ph.D.s.  They’ve been operating at the highest level for a very long time.  In my company, even most of the senior management and executives are former engineers.  Some are great to work with, and some are pure torture.

Here’s a quick description of the way many of these torture-to-work-with folks think:

Engineers = good at math

Finance = math


Engineers = good at finance

What separates the great-to-work-with ones from the others are that they understand what their role is.  I’m the first to admit that I’m not as smart as these guys and ladies.  When they talk shop, I honestly have no idea what they’re saying.  However, the ones that let me do my job as a financial analyst are the ones that I want to continue to work with.

These great engineers lead conversations.  They don’t have all the answers (or, at least they don’t act as though they do).  They’re continually asking questions when they’re out of their area of expertise.  Even when they’re operating in their area, they still ask questions of others to ensure that all viewpoints are considered and that no alternatives are overlooked.

No one likes a know-it-all.  Don’t be that guy.  Ask questions and lead conversations if you want others to develop trust in you.

We had a saying in the military: “Salute the uniform”.  It meant it didn’t matter whether or not you liked the person in charge, you had to follow them.  While I understand why that needed to be the case, it sucked.  I worked for some great folks and some not-so-great folks.  It was much easier to pop a salute to someone who I respected as a person.

When you lead from the middle, you’ll eventually get the opportunity to lead from the front.  You’ll be put into a position of leadership.  And, once this happens, you’ll already have bypassed that first stage of leadership where folks follow you for your title.  They’ll follow you for who you are.  That’s the beginning of true leadership.

Photo courtesy: Highway of Life

4 thoughts on “Leading Without Being A Leader”

  1. Yes, relationships are definately the key. This got me thinking about how a good coach as the team leader is great at positioning members and connecting with the team. Relationship Marketing and making real connections with people… should be considered in all aspects of our lives. Thank you.

    1. I think you're right, Robin. When it boils down to it, people will only follow you for two reasons: they fear you, or they like/respect you. I think you're going to get a lot more mileage out of the relationships that you build.

  2. You nail it.

    If we are unhappy where we are, feel stuck and want to get "there" already – we need to understand that we are where we are for a reason – we simply need to learn a lesson that will be necessary for us when we get "there".

    The key is to find out what we need to learn and learn it so well that we feel comfortable. Then we'll get kicked up and find again that we are unhappy where we are 😛

    This goes round and round – when unhappy, learn the lesson.

    If you don't learn the lesson, your wheel will stop, then start to roll backward :/

    You know better than that

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