How to lead without authority
I spent a lot of time being angry when I started my career. My employers and bosses frustrated me. My coworkers frustrated me. End users, customers, everyone frustrated me.
I got angry about decisions that made no sense to me. Most of my complaints fell into the theme of:
“If I was in charge, we’d never do X.”
If only they’d asked me first. If only I was the boss. If only…
I probably had a few legitimate criticisms and good ideas, but most of my frustration was based on the ignorance of youth and inexperience — thinking I knew more than I knew.
When I did want something changed or disagreed with a decision, my first course of action was to complain to my boss.
“This is stupid. You should fix it.”
I had no sense of agency and thought I couldn’t change anything because I didn’t have the power to. I could come up with ideas (Fun fact: ideas are easy.), but I needed someone else’s permission and authority to put them into motion.
I thought I needed control and a mandate to lead and affect change. More often than not I thought “I can’t do anything about this, other than complain.”
I was wrong.
Over time I discovered three things:
- True leadership is not based on authority.
- It’s possible (even preferable in many situations) to lead sideways.
- The degree to which anyone has actual control over anything or anyone is comically small.
Getting people to follow you
I’ve been very lucky in my career to have worked for good managers, although I often took them for granted. Even though I looked to their authority for solutions, with only a couple exceptions did any of them ever tell me “Do this… because I said so.”
Rather than dictating specific action, they presented a vision of what needed to be accomplished (goals), and provided me with support and breathing room to get it done. They trusted and empowered me. They made me feel important and that they genuinely cared about my well-being and personal progress.
I still thought I needed their mandate to change things, but I was able to move out of my comfort zone and build confidence in my skills and judgement.
My motivation to do well flowed from a desire to not let those managers down. I didn’t want to betray their trust or make them look bad. None of that dedication came from fear of losing my job or a respect for authority — it was because they inspired me to care. If any of them called me today and asked for help, personally or professionally, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of bosses that micromanaged me (making me feel like they didn’t trust me at all) or leaned heavily on their authority to drive me and coworkers to action. I respected neither of them, although I have some sympathy for them in hindsight.
I’ve come to believe that there is no surer sign of a person’s self-perceived inadequacy — feeling in-over-their-head or simply out of control than when they feel the need to declare themselves “the boss”. The moment a person asserts their authority as the reason to follow them is the same moment they’ve proven they aren’t worth following.
I’ve seen that behavior in pimply-faced kids who get promotions at fast food restaurants. I’ve seen it in 60-year-old CEOs of large companies. Everytime I see it, I want to pull those people aside and tell them “Shhh… Shhh… You’re OK. It will all be OK.”
Then I’d tell them three things about what real leaders do:
- They provide a vision of something greater than day-to-day tasks.
- They spend the time and emotional effort to discover what the people they’re leading care about.
- They trust and empower the people they’re leading, even when the stakes are high.
The scope of what can be accomplished by people who are inspired and care about the person leading them is far greater than what is done out of fear of losing one’s job or being reprimanded.
The power of soft influence
Even working for good bosses, I remained under the impression for a long time that my power to drive change had to come from them.
Yet again, I was wrong.
Without really being conscious of it, I started copying some of the behavior I saw in those I admired. I spent more time building relationships with co-workers, learning what motivated them, and sharing a little of myself in turn. I started trusting others a little more and let go of tasks and control of conversations I would have normally tried to hold tight to my chest.
I made conscious changes as well. I started asking for other people’s opinions more. Although it doesn’t come naturally to my personality, I started asking for help.
I started sharing more of my vision for the things I wanted to build and the changes I wanted to make. I worked to build consensus, soft-selling my ideas and compromising when necessary. I started letting others take ownership of my ideas as well.
And a curious thing began to happen. A lot of the things I was frustrated about and wanted to change — started changing.
Much to my surprise, it was entirely possible to lead and affect change among peers without any authority at all.
Also to my surprise and frustration, the hardest thing for me to do was also the most effective in getting others to follow my lead: asking for help.
It’s one of those head-slapping things that you feel dumb about when you realize how well it works on you, but when someone asks for your help (and really means it), it makes you feel important, which in turn, makes you want to help.
Asking for help is a little like rolling over and showing your soft underbelly. Some of us have a hard time doing it because of ego and vulnerability, but if you can get past that and have confidence in your end goals, asking for help is straight up magic.
You’re saying to the other person, “You, specifically you, have the power, skills, knowledge, etc… to help me accomplish this thing. You are important to our success. You are important to me.” That’s hard to turn away from.
If this sounds a little like manipulation, it absolutely can be, but that’s fairly transparent when it happens. I think most people can tell when someone else is buttering them up or asking for something just to mooch.
If you ask for help and can get past yourself to believe that you really do need the other person’s help, you and all the others you’re leading will be able to build spaceships and cure diseases. You’ll be tapping into the real social network, the type of collaboration that got humans out of scraping by, living in caves, and into planting wheat and building cities.
Control is an illusion
I am a control freak and used to be much worse than I am now.
I thought I needed control for things to be the way I wanted them to be. I thought I needed control to change things and didn’t really change much because also I thought I needed someone else to provide me with that control.
Seeking out control is a good way to make yourself unhappy, because you’re never going to get it and those that think they do have control tend to look like idiots to everyone around them (see teenage fast food manager above).
It’s hard to admit you don’t have control. It’s really scary too. That anything can happen at any time and you can’t really do anything about it is a good way to give yourself nightmares.
But it’s the truth. The most we have control of is ourselves and how we react to things, and even that’s limited.
You can get mad and yell and try to change someone’s mind about something, but you can’t control what they think. Nevermind that desiring that type of control is borderline psychopathic.
You can buy insurance and build your house into a fortress, but you can’t stop the freak electrical fire from burning it down while you’re out of town.
The best you can do is manage your reactions and maybe give a nudge here and there. That seems to be true for both leadership and life in general.
You don’t need control or authority to lead, because those aren’t real things. Instead what you need is empathy, vision, and a realistic understanding of what you can and cannot influence to direct your efforts.
We seek out control because it feels like an easy fix. We just need that promotion, or to be our own boss and then everything will be better. Control gives us the authority to lead the charge and get stuff done.
That’s just not how life works. Actual leadership is hard because having empathy, vision, and a detachment from control is hard. The sooner you give up chasing after control and put your efforts into building those other muscles, the sooner you’ll actually accomplish something.