Contrary to what you may have learned in leadership training, you can effectively guide people who are outside your realm of authority. To do so, you must understand what leadership truly is and how it appears to those who are looking for it.
The traditional model of leadership requires control (authority) to “make” people do what they need to do. Pulling rank, so the thinking goes, forces them to fall in line and meet goals and objectives. Fortunately, this has become an outdated philosophy that, we have come to realize, ignores basic human behavior.
Leadership vs. Authority
People apply themselves and do their best when they want to, not when they’re forced to. From a motivational standpoint, they seek interest, satisfaction, purpose, inspiration and personal reward. Having a sense of value and accomplishment encourages engagement—a virtually impossible prospect when they feel they’re being controlled.
Leadership fosters inspiration, whereas authority produces obligation. Authority is the supervisory responsibility to direct, decide and delegate. It is sometimes misused for personal gain.
In contrast, leadership establishes goals or visions and inspires people to achieve them—a process accomplished through influence. Those influenced positively will follow willingly (the essence of true leadership).
Leadership success depends on knowing how to influence people and breed a desire to follow (as opposed to trying to mandate it via formal authority). Following a leader is a choice based on desire; trying to mandate it is misguided and ultimately doomed to fail.
Influence is the foundation of leadership, according to Clay Scroggins, author of How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge: Leveraging Influence When You Lack Authority (Zondervan, 2017). "Leaders who consistently leverage their authority to lead are less effective in the long term than leaders who leverage their influence,” he writes. Again, human behavior is the driving factor.
While almost everyone has the ability to influence others and lead in some capacity, many leaders fail to be inspirational and fall back into their default position: an insistence on asserting their authority. Numerous research studies confirm that positional authority does not guarantee effective leadership. In fact, strongly wielded authoritative power has led to some of the poorest leadership outcomes.
Your ability to influence people will determine whether you can lead those who report to others. Work on mastering the following principles to increase your sphere of influence.
1. Be a Worthy Leader
Show others how reliable, trustworthy and respectable you can be. You don’t need to have formal authority over them to do this. Noble leaders naturally exude these attributes.
Followers want to be associated with successful leaders. They listen to leaders with admirable traits, seeking hope, encouragement and professional possibilities. Also demonstrate confidence if you want others to work with self-reliance, advises Patricia Simpson in Leading Without Authority, a July 2016 Leadership Institute article.
Remember: People are watching you. They’re searching for character in their leaders, and they appreciate working for individuals who improve their lives at work. They want to admire, respect and follow authentic leaders.
Your identity relies heavily on how you view yourself. Knowing your abilities, limitations, values, mission and perspective allows you to perform an accurate self-assessment. Followers, colleagues and superiors will judge you on these factors, so you must continually work to improve your skills. You’ll be rewarded with greater trust.
People value leaders who have everyone’s best interests at heart, including those outside your direct authority. Leaders who care about others are worth following. Being helpful, especially when there’s no direct benefit to yourself, commands respect and influence.
Your motivation and ambition should focus on achieving something, Scroggins notes. Followers want to take part in your achievements, as long as your goals aren’t self-serving. Selfless leadership should generate a matching level of enthusiasm. (Both draw attention from a distance and are contagious.) It doesn’t take long for the workplace to recognize where they originated.
Dedication to excellence, without the intrusion of one’s ego, is a catalyst for inspiration and influence. Take ownership of the quest for positive change, while also giving credit to others—a potent combination for growing a following. Listening to others’ ideas and valuing their input forges a collective ownership.
2. Promote Relationships
People-focused leaders enjoy the greatest professional success, as influence is founded on relationships. People find it easier to follow the ideas of someone they like, respect and trust, suggests Erica Hersh in Leading Outside Your Authority, a 2015 article for the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Show interest in people, and regularly communicate how much they’re valued to cultivate healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. This strengthens your influence and builds a stronger following.
Your ability to pitch ideas and win over opinions directly relates to your relational strengths. One way to measure influence is by the number of people who adopt your perspective. Strong relationships are characterized by cooperation, collaboration and implementation.
They also develop into networks, where influence is compounded. You may not have relationships with everyone you’d like to influence, but a growing network of followers helps cement your reputation, creates further connections and brings beneficial supporters on board. People within the network will rally others who will embrace your efforts. You can grow a solid base of support by leveraging relationships within a network.
3. Build Credibility
Demonstrating credibility helps compel people to work with you, Hersh says. People trust leaders whose ideas make sense and who have a history of effecting positive change. Nothing beats a track record of making things happen. People seek leaders with the insight to pinpoint needed improvements and the skills to implement the necessary changes.
Part of being credible is the ability to think critically, yet openly. Your capacity to see things objectively—and realistically—engenders trust. Leaders who openly tackle and overcome obstacles with regularity and positivity are deemed credible. Be a critical thinker, not a critical person.
Build credibility by continually forging ahead and rejecting passivity, especially when things don’t go your way, Scroggins suggests. Become known for never giving up, while putting the organization’s needs ahead of your own.
Be a role model by behaving like a team player. Demonstrate that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, and eschew the “it’s not my job” mentality; you’ll earn respect and enhance your credibility.
Show others that “good enough” is not good enough. A powerful role model sees a need that no one else is addressing and works toward remedying it.
4. Challenge the Status Quo
Perhaps the toughest test you’ll face when working outside your authority is challenging the system. By questioning the status quo, you insinuate that change is needed. Upper-echelon managers may think you’re brooking their authority or accusing them of doing something wrong. Some may take your comments personally, unable to separate the policy from the personal.
Followers may also resist your efforts, fearing the potential fallout. But a leader with great people skills, influence, and a following can successfully institute positive change at even the highest levels.
Navigating these treacherous waters requires a multifaceted approach:
- Ensure that your motives and values are honorable and evident. Changes perceived to be self-serving or inappropriately critical will be rejected quickly.
- Pay attention to your body language, tone, verbiage and timing when expressing your thoughts and concerns.
- Consider hiring a qualified professional leadership coach to offer helpful direction and work with you on your relational skills.
- Clearly communicate why you’re challenging the status quo. Declare your noble intentions from the start.
- Present compelling solutions instead of merely identifying a problem, Simpson advises. Develop a reputation for being a problem-solver for your boss, with everyone’s best interests in mind. Paint a picture of positivity and mutual benefit.
Choose your battles, and be willing to let some things go. Learn to accept the possibility that some of your ideas will be rejected. Recognize that you’ll take some wrong turns on the way to finding the right ones. The entire process is yet another opportunity to grow professionally as you expand your sphere of influence.
5. Enlist Colleagues’ Support
You’ll build an even stronger position when you harness the influence of peer-level leaders.
Reach out to these colleagues in a positive, sincere and nonthreatening way. By working together, you have a greater chance of convincing higher-level managers to move forward.
Present solutions as vehicles for achieving joint benefits. This approach can be a compelling start to improving the status quo.
6. Show Initiative
Anticipate leadership opportunities—and be ready when the call to action arrives.
Better yet, recognize that “each of us has a unique opportunity to create something right where we are,” as Scroggins says. “It doesn’t require special authority or a fancy title or having the corner office…Don’t shrink back until someone calls your number.”
We encourage our direct reports to be self-starters. Seize every opportunity to lead by example.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a transformational leader who inspires individuals and organizations to achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders create a culture where respect and trust flourish.
Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-i 2.0, Hogan Lead, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders nurture strengths-based conversations in the workplace. You can become an inspiring leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.