Informal Leadership: Leading Without Authority

During a lunchroom conversation at work the other day, a colleague asked how you can lead without authority. How can you be an effective leader without having the formal or positional authority of a VP, director or manger?

It’s a great question. I want to give a fuller answer here than my impromptu thoughts at the time. In my role as a technical program manager at a Seattle-area ecommerce company (no, not that one), just about everything I do is accomplished without formal authority. I’ve been both a manager and an individual contributor over the years so I hope I can offer some useful perspective whether your job requires you to lead without authority or whether you’re just looking for ways to broaden your influence in your organization.

There’s a massive amount of literature about what makes a good leader and I don’t claim to have read more than a tiny fraction of it. One recurring theme though is the distinction between being a manager and a leader. While the best managers are also great leaders, great leaders don’t have to be managers. I like the term informal leadership for describing leadership without being a manager.

So if you’re not a manger but still want to lead or develop leadership skills, what can you do?

To start with, the scope for informal leadership is extremely broad. Informal leadership is not just picking over the table scraps left behind by formal leaders. In fact, I can think of just four things leaders do only when they’re managers:

  1. Staffing activities like hiring, firing, rewarding and promoting.
  2. Allocating people or money to teams and projects
  3. Setting goals and priorities
  4. Assigning tasks

Of course these things are important and hugely impactful, but just about everything else leaders do can also be done without formal authority including developing vision and strategy, defining and exemplifying team values, communicating, simplifying, collaborating, coaching, problem solving, etc. As an informal leader, you may not control these things or have the final say, but you can contribute to and often heavily influence them.

There are even some things you may be able to do more effectively as an informal leader:

  • Scouting the road ahead, looking for opportunities and threats, identifying promising new technologies
  • Challenging assumptions, practices and systems and experimenting with new ones
  • Spotting problems, conducting detailed technical investigations, and proposing and implementing solutions

That’s because managers, by definition, have to manage existing businesses, workloads and people. They can’t spend too much of their time immersed in detailed technical or operational issues. Software development managers, for example, cannot review every line of code or design change. And the Vice President who years ago wrote in C and C++ probably can’t even spell R today. That leaves space for others to step forward and play an informal leadership role. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s a necessity. Teams can’t function properly without informal leaders because managers, the formal leaders, can’t do it all.

Okay, so how can you be on effective leader without authority? I think success as an informal leader depends upon three things.

Credibility: You need to be knowledgeable, believable and rational for others to take you seriously. The best place to start is the area you’re presently working in, where you already have expertise. You might be a senior engineer or an architect guiding more junior members of your team, for example, or a new hire with relevant prior experience from another company. This knowledge and experience can serve as the foundation for informal leadership. Over time if you build on and broaden that foundation you’ll gain credibility in more areas.

Integrity: Most people have little difficulty not being lying, cheating, back-stabbing scoundrels. There are exceptions, of course, and they should be avoided like radioactive waste. But what I’m referring to here is positive integrity, the things you do rather than things you don’t do. This includes treating everyone with respect, assuming positive intent in others even when you disagree, communicating clearly and honestly, giving constructive feedback when necessary, keeping your commitments, listening carefully, and not gossiping about what you hear.

Helping others: I think this is really what informal leadership is all about. Helping others, your co-workers and your managers (yes, them too), achieve their goals; recognizing problems, pitfalls and roadblocks; helping to resolve, avoid or remove them; helping everyone on your team to learn and grow.

Don’t formal leaders, managers, also need these qualities? Absolutely. But they’re even more important for informal leaders because they don’t have the positional authority that managers do.

Perhaps the hardest part about informal leadership is recognizing the opportunities and the needs. Look for gaps and overlaps. Listen for gears grinding and brakes squealing. Then act. Perhaps you notice persistent performance issues in a particular component. Talk to the relevant stakeholders and propose a re-design. Look for opportunities to extend or re-purpose existing system to meet new needs or fix critical problems. How many times did Scotty or Geordi save the day on Star Trek by reconfiguring, rerouting or realigning some part of those absurdly unreliable warp drive engines? Or maybe you see there’s interest in a new approach to data modeling or machine learning. Try putting together an informal study group to learn about it, the way Hermione Granger organized a Defense Against the Dark Arts group in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book, movie). It’s not always technical, and it’s not always work-related either. Sometimes what a team needs most is a social convener like the character Elizabeth McKenna in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (book, movie). She led by recognizing the need for connection and companionship among her neighbors living under German occupation. She also showed tremendous courage and moral leadership.

I can’t promise that informal leadership will necessarily get you your next promotion, or that it will automatically put you on a path to a management position with formal authority. But I’m certain you’ll be better for it, and so will everyone you work with.

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