Leading When You Aren’t in Charge
My wife and I are currently teaching one of our sons to drive. Quite frankly, it has been terrifying! I’ve come to the realization that teaching from the passenger seat is actually pretty difficult.
It takes patience. And it’s all about balance. When should we speak up or just let the new driver figure it out? What’s the right tone and intensity to express urgency but not create panic? When do we need to reach over and grab the wheel to keep the car on the road, or will he straighten things out on his own?
A Delicate Balance
Many of us find ourselves in the passenger seat of the organizations we serve, often struggling to find a similar balance.
Leading when you aren’t in charge is a precarious challenge.
When do we speak up? How do we find the tone and urgency to express concerns or challenge those who lead? Is it ever okay to reach over and grab the wheel? And how do we do any of that without creating conflict, destroying trust with our boss, or being asked to exit the vehicle?
Leading when you aren’t in charge is a precarious challenge.
What follows in this article is not a step-by-step guide on how to lead when you don’t have a position of leadership. Rather, I hope to outline four mindsets that are critical if you desire to lead but don’t have a position of authority.
Four mindsets for those who want to lead but aren’t in charge:
Build Influence through Impact
Leadership has been redefined recently as influence rather than authority. Leading is less about title, position, or paycheck, and more about influencing others.
For those of us seeking to lead when we aren’t in charge, this redefinition of leadership is freeing. It frees us to lead functionally before positionally. But how can we build credibility and gain a voice that allows us to influence beyond our current role? How do we gain influence regardless of our position?
There is a simple, but not always easy, answer: Impact is the pathway to influence.
Nothing will get you more noticed within your organization, get your ideas to be more considered, and get you invited more frequently to greater levels of influence than to generate results. Influence follows impact.
This influence doesn’t always have to be just within the scope of your job. Adding value across the silos of our organizational charts is impact. Solving a problem for another team is impact. Volunteering to lead a new initiative is impact. And with impact comes influence.
Unfortunately, many who seek to lead without being in charge want a position of power without first making a positive impact. The “influence follows impact” mindset may be a slower and more difficult path to leadership, but it ensures that we are ready to lead and have built credibility with those who will follow us.
Evaluate Your Motives
When I was an undergraduate student, I took an elective class called "Group Dynamics" because I understood it to be an easy grade. We spent the semester playing games to learn how groups function.
My first exposure to the DiSC personality profile was in group dynamics. My results were a bit alarming to my professor: I have an extremely high dominant, high-achieving personality. He warned me that while I’m wired to lead, if I’m not careful I’ll destroy every relationship on the way to the top. It was a dose of self-awareness that has stuck for decades and probably saved me a lot of pain.
Why do you want to lead?
This leads me to ask an important question: Why do you want to lead?
How self-aware are you of the motivations for your desire to lead? I’m not sure we ask that question enough. And failing to do so will send some of us trying to climb our way to the top with a path of destruction in our wake.
A critical mindset of learning to lead when we aren’t in charge is to ensure that our motives are right. Are we motivated by a desire to expand the impact of our organization because we believe we can contribute to make that happen? Or are we motivated by a desire for our own glory, in whatever form that may take?
Many of us who are wired to lead have a hard time waiting. We get impatient when we see poor leadership, and are convinced that we can add value and get results. We are driven to success, and look for ways to lead. However, if our motives are not clear and pure, we will create toxicity around us because others will know we are driven by personal ambition rather than missional advancement. Simply put – you can’t hide selfish ambition.
Get clear on your motives. If we are not, then our desire to lead will keep us from actually leading well.
Learn to Follow Before You Lead
We live in a culture where leadership gets celebrated, discussed, and taught. Being less than a leader may be perceived as something less than. In reality, there are many more followers than leaders in our organizations. What if we invested as much in learning to follow well as we do in leading well? What if the reason that many who aspire to lead fail is because they never learned to follow?
For those who want to lead while not in charge, the mindset of following well is critical for success.
Following well means that we place a high priority on serving, honoring, and helping those who lead us. This does not mean we agree with every decision, but rather we disagree with appropriate respect. Following well means we are willing to implement decisions and strategies of those in charge as if they were our own, even if we might have done something different. And most importantly, following well means we honor those who lead by refraining from speaking negatively and divisively to others in the organization about those who lead.
If you want to lead but currently lack authority, how well are you following? Are you teachable when your ideas aren’t accepted? Do you learn from the strengths of others? Are you sowing seeds of division? Do you elevate those who are leading you?
Learning to follow well will prepare you to lead well. Learning to follow well is also a mindset that creates opportunities to lead now but keeps others open to listening to your ideas.
Use the Present to Prepare for More
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is King David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16. Jesse was to bring his sons to a sacrifice, where unknown to him, the prophet Samuel would anoint a new king for Israel. David, Jesse’s youngest son, wasn’t invited to the sacrifice. When this was discovered and questioned by Samuel, Jesse remarked that David was young and tending sheep. David is summoned and then Samuel anoints him as Israel’s next king.
The very next story in 1 Samuel 17 is David’s victory over Goliath using a sling he no doubt perfected while guarding those sheep. David’s current position, a shepherd, made everyone else think he could never lead. Yet, it was being a shepherd that prepared him for something more.
Have you considered that God may be using this season to prepare you for the next one?
Many of us have seasons of work where we might feel like David. Undervalued. Working beneath our capacity. In a role that somehow feels less-than. Have you considered that God may be using this season to prepare you for the next one? It is a missed opportunity to not take advantage of where we are now to prepare for how God may choose to use us later in our careers. Use the present to prepare for more.
Do you feel stuck between where you are and where you want to be? It’s a difficult spot to be in, especially for those of us who want to lead. It’s easy to drift into resentment and cynicism because we think we could do it better. However, the mindset that creates a path to true influence is to intentionally use your current season to prepare for what’s next. This mindset may make those positions of leadership happen faster than you could imagine.
A Final Word of Caution
Leading when you aren’t in charge is plagued with potential downfalls. Your motives may be questioned. You may get frustrated when your voice isn’t heard. You may get impatient at the (slow) speed of change.
Adopting these four mindsets helps us avoid the risks of seeking to lead when we aren’t in charge. If you were made to lead, then create influence through impact. Follow well. Check your motives. And never miss the opportunity to build your capacity now to lead tomorrow.
Michael Gunnin serves as Executive Vice President & Chief Growth Officer of Walk Thru the Bible, a ministry working in 140+ countries to help ignite passion for God’s Word. He is the creator of several Walk Thru the Bible resources, including Bible Study Simplified and otPANORAMIC. Learn more about Walk Thru the Bible at www.walkthru.org or reach Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.