How to be a leader without a formal leadership position?

Leadership can not be demonstrated only in formal positions or through authority

Published: Jun 12, 2019

g_117235_leadership_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

Can I become a leader without a leadership title? Can I influence others without having formal authority? Can I lead when I am at the bottom of the hierarchy? These are the hot talking points amongst young minds just after they join the organization. Most of them are front-line workers, individual contributors or process owners. They are full of vim and vigor but power position is still a far-reaching dream to them.  They are yet to get fully immersed in the know-how of the business. Formal leadership is still in latency and the transition to it seems to be light years away.   

Today’s business schools are hotbeds of leadership development. Paradoxically, when budding professionals set foot in the corporate world, the reality is utterly different than platonic ideals. As more and more organisations are adopting process-based management, there is a ghost of a chance to make leadership bloom for new joinees, especially when they are at the steep learning curve.

To rejuvenate the energy of neophytes, it is very essential to dispel a conventional notion of ‘titled leadership’ from their minds.  It operates on the premise that leadership belongs to the position rather than the individual. If young professionals cling to this premise, they will work on a low-key tune and will not be keen in demonstrating leadership talent till they get formal authority. Hence, a vicious circle is formed wherein their underachievement will knock them out of the race and a leadership position will be a drifting goal for them.

The above scenario would be diametrically opposite if young professionals adhere to ‘Untitled leadership.’ These two magic words will set the ball rolling. They will strike off the idea that leadership can be demonstrated only in formal positions or through authority. They will liberate their minds from markers of status and misleading distinctions created by job titles. They will drive themselves to work in high gear; without cooling their heels till the formal leadership position is conferred by the organisation.

‘How does one get bestowed upon the untitled leadership? If you ask this question, the best answer is, ‘You have to CRAFT your own path.’  The CRAFT is an acronym for words of advice, which will help you step in on this path.  

C- Coin your own leadership style
To lead is to create positive influence. You can kick off your leadership journey as a self-starter. Once you learn the art of leading yourself, you will progress towards leading others. If you succeed in making a little difference in the environment, you are on the right track. You have to put your thinking cap on to find out the key enablers which create a difference. One size doesn’t fit all.  What works for you, may not work for others. Way back in the mid twentieth century, Hersey and Blanchard said that no single leadership style is the best. Leadership style evolves and you can create your own.

R. Ride the struggle bus
Your leadership journey may not be linear. After all, it is a struggle bus and your ride could be bumpy, herky-jerky or zigzag. It can be slow and steady or it could have a slippery slope. At times, your teammates or boss may push you towards the back seat and there could be overwhelming moments of frustration and disappointment. If you are an untitled leader, you have to adapt to high change tolerance and keep moving forward. You will get your turn to drive the bus or you probably opt not to because you may realize that the driver seat is not always the power seat, and you can press the right buttons sitting at the back too.

A- Accelerate continuous learning mode
Untitled leadership frees you from rigidity and you do not get imprisoned in a single mode of learning. Learning encompasses all three modes- Learning, Unlearning and Relearning.  You have to keep all three modes active and make yourself relevant. Learning is not a one-stop process, it is continuous. You have to dig deep into your core beliefs. Stay open to embrace new beliefs. New beliefs will not be learnt unless and until you are willing to uproot the old unhealthy beliefs and relearn newer ones.

F- Feel empowered 
If the leadership is hooked onto the pyramid structure, decision making flows vertically.  However, if you are an untitled leader, you are no longer confined to any chain of command. Nobody else can consider you as a leader unless you think that you are a leader, and when you think of yourself as a leader, you will feel empowered. Feeling empowered is to proactively take ownership and act on it. You need to focus on the factors which are within your control and take the reins in your hand.  

T- Transcend your boundaries
Your leadership will be in full bloom if you are willing to transcend your boundaries. The boundaries are mostly attitudinal. They can be expanded by putting yourself in various unfamiliar contexts deliberately.  You need to accept stretch assignments. They will bring you out of comfort zone and will present many leading opportunities. As much as you can expand the boundaries, you will move forward on the full spectrum of leadership. 

Lastly, the ‘CRAFT’ walk will undoubtedly be a memorable journey for you, and if you enjoy it, you will have a solid ‘Yes’ to the questions asked in the beginning.  

The article is contributed by Prof. Dr. Anjali Joshi, Associate Dean & Professor, Human Resources , S.P. Mandali’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool). Her interests lie in Organisational Behaviour, Performance Management, Managerial Counselling, and Competency Management. Views are personal.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool)]

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