Leading when you’re not a leader or don’t have formal authority is a popular topic of discussion. But this raises broader questions about leadership. After all, someone with authority or a specific title may be able to use those kinds of power to convince you to comply with an order or direction, but a title or other authority almost certainly isn’t going to convince you to follow them willingly wherever they lead. So if you want to be a leader, a good place to start is by considering what convinces you to follow someone else.
Think of someone you’ve worked with who you would willingly follow and someone you would NOT follow. Usually, one name for each category will leap into your mind - someone you would follow into a burning building and someone you wouldn’t even follow out of a burning building! Now think about the behaviours each of those people exhibited that made them come to mind.
The behaviours that seem to carry the greatest weight here are ones to do with trust. Trust that you know what you’re doing or that you ask the right questions of the right people - that’s competence. Trust that you know where we’re going - that’s vision. Trust that you aren’t in it just for yourself, but will consider my interests as well - that’s integrity. Trust that you’ll listen to me and really consider what I say - that’s inclusivity. Trust that if things go horribly wrong, you won’t shift the blame to everyone else and that if things go wonderfully right, you won’t take all of the credit - that’s honesty. Were any of these items in your mind?
Now for the difficult part. Think about your own behaviour - whether in a leadership role or not - to determine whether you would be likely to follow you. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get open and honest feedback from others about the degree to which you engender trust, so you simply need to do it yourself.
Now think of a time when you tried to lead without authority when things didn’t go so well. Did you share information and seriously consider others’ ideas or was your vision so sharp or the time so short that you just pushed your own agenda? Did you give others a chance to shine or did you direct every phase of the project? Did you truly know each person and articulate what they would get out of participating or were the benefits so obvious that you didn’t need to do that?
As you can see, we all have reasons for doing what we do, but we don’t always recognise that by failing to build trust, we’re undermining our own ability to lead, both now and in the future. Think back to the people you would and would not follow. Consider those behaviours in light of your own self-examination and identify one behaviour that you think you can improve - that would make you more likely to follow you. Set a realistic plan for practicing this new behaviour and ask others for help and feedback. The mere fact that you’re trying to develop more positive behaviour is likely to be seen as constructive by those you’re interested in leading.
Even if you master the trust issue, there are other factors that will almost certainly impact on your ability to influence or lead others. Multiple studies have confirmed that, as human beings, we have an unconscious or implicit bias towards others who look and sound like us. If you’re truly trying to influence an individual, you’ll want to leverage this bias. Steven Covey’s concept of an emotional bank account - where every interaction is either an emotional deposit or withdrawal - helps us understand that if we develop the habit of helping others when and where we can, we’re building bank balances (or goodwill) so that, when it’s important to have someone take or support a particular position or action, a withdrawal can be made.
Networks are also important. They allow us to use indirect influence, convincing one person with whom we have built a solid relationship to get someone else, with whom we do not have a relationship (or not as powerful a relationship), to take that desired position or action. These and other factors can contribute to your ability to lead, but they are all likely to be secondary to trust.
We all need to be able to lead without authority. At work, we may be dealing with a matrixed organisation or cross-functional project teams, but this need also shows up at home and in our private lives. You may want to influence a child to stop smoking, members of your community to become active participants in the homeowners association, or shoppers at a local store to contribute to a particular charity. Regardless of your interests, you’ll need to start by ensuring that you would follow you.