How to Be a Leader When You're Not the Boss

Back in kindergarten, it was an honor to be chosen as the line leader. Even if it was only for the short distance between the classroom and the cafeteria, all of your classmates had to follow you. When you stopped, they stopped. When you walked, they fell in step behind you. For many of us, the joy of being at the front of the line was our first experience as a leader.

But now you have managers, bosses, and your bosses’ bosses and it doesn’t ever seem like you’ll have the chance to be a leader again. Don’t worry, you can.

Waggl recently released a list of the top human capital priorities of 2016. Coming in at No. 1 was focusing on creating “leadership at all levels,” with more than 74 percent of HR and business professionals saying that was an important priority for this year.

Conventional wisdom would warn against this because it’s hard to get anything done with too many chiefs and not enough Indians. But when you think about all the ways an employee can be a leader, it becomes clearer that somebody can lead without being in charge. It’s possible to inspire, motivate, and coach others without ever giving a command.

If you aspire to be a business leader one day, or if you just want to be a more valuable member of your organization, you need to start practicing the different ways you can lead. Here are four ways for you to be more of a leader, even if you’re not the boss:

1. Be a problem solver

Whenever there are doubts or problems, people turn to their leaders for help. If you want to become more of a leader, you need to become the person the team turns to when they don’t know the answer.

That doesn’t mean you need to master every position in the company and learn everything about everything. But you need to demonstrate to others that you have problem solving skills. Show them that even if you don’t currently have the answer, you can help find a way to get one -- big or small.

A big part of that is understanding not only your own strengths, but also those of your team. Know who your team is -- their professional expertise and personal interests. Start small. For example, if you and your co-workers are trying to decide where to go for happy hour after work, offer a place that everyone will enjoy. Not familiar with the bars in the area? Know who lives close by and can give you some recommendations. Then offer suggestions to the group.

It may not be as monumental as deciding which direction to take a company’s new product line, but it’s a start and will get people to start seeing you as someone with decisive solutions.

2. Learn the difference between helping someone and holding them back

A big part of being a leader is supporting others to become better. That means helping them to succeed, but sometimes helping becomes hurting if you just end up doing the job for them. Then you keep them from developing themselves.

For example, if a less experienced colleague is having trouble completing a task you’ve done thousands of times before, he might come to you for help -- after all, you are the problem solver now.

Sure, It’d be quicker to just do the job yourself. But then how is your co-worker any better of a professional? Instead, take the time to walk people through the process, answering questions as they do the task themselves.

3. Acknowledge other’s hard work

What others think and appreciate about our performance at work can be very influential, even if they aren’t our boss. A 2014 survey from TINYpulse found that co-workers were the number one reason we go the extra mile at work.

Whether it’s because we want our peers approval or would feel bad making their life more difficult, the fact of the matter is we often do more than is required of us because of our colleagues. Acknowledge that extra effort whenever you have the chance. At my company, Coplex, team members nominate a coworker who has gone above and beyond that week. That employee and their hard work is then featured in our weekly internal newsletter “Friday Five.”

And say thank you. Not only because it’s the polite thing to do, but it shows your team that you notice all they do.

4. Start thinking in terms of big picture results

In many cases, we think about success as accomplishing or finishing something. We don’t necessarily think about how the work affects the bigger picture.

Leaders define success differently than others. They think in terms of measurable results, changes that they can see and say “that’s a result of our work.” This is not the natural way of thinking for many of us.

When you finish a project, take a moment to think about how the work helps the company. Consider what part others played in the process and how that contributes to the project’s success.

Begin to set goals for yourself that are measureable and keep track of them. For example, don’t just try and get ten new clients in a month, go for clients that bring in a certain amount of money. That way you’ll constantly be contributing to the bottom line regardless of your formal employment title.

No one starts their career with ‘leader’ in their title, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader from the start. You have to work hard and pay your dues to earn that title. If you’re not there yet, it’s OK. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start developing leadership skills to help in your transformation.

What other ways can employees be more of a leader, even if they’re not yet a boss? Share in the comments below!

(This blog was first published on LinkedIn and is reposted here with prior permission from Ilya Pozin.)

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Categories: Leadership

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Ilya Pozin

Ilya Pozin founded his first company, Ciplex, at the age of 17. The digital marketing and creative agency caters to ...

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