How To Lead When You Are Not The Leader

We continue to be in the grip of a global leadership crisis. It is the sort of crisis that we, human beings, seem deeply ill equipped to respond to. For example we struggle to see the leadership problem clearly enough or acknowledge that solutions are embedded in complexity to such a degree that the crisis requires us to reframe lots of deeply held but largely unexamined assumptions and beliefs. We aren’t very good at that sort of stuff, we prefer a good old fashioned crisis where there is a clear enemy or clear objective and where a combination of grit, hard work and rational problem solving will see us through. The leadership crisis isn’t like that and that’s why we are struggling to respond effectively despite some very obvious needs to do so.

Why do I say that there is a leadership crisis? It is because everywhere I look I see a leadership gap. Some of these gaps are huge -yawning chasms – and obvious. Take for example any of the global problems that we collectively face. How about Climate Change? Global warming represents a substantial existential threat to our collective future as CO2 emissions continue to rise and yet no leader or group of leaders have emerged to carry the hopes of future generations into a workable solution we can thrash out in Paris. Tell me I am wrong. How about Migration? As we see Europe’s collective response to the Refugee/Migrant crisis flopping around in the miserable search for a populist response to dead children washing up on its beaches we see a failure of leadership in navigating towards an effective policy.

Other leadership gaps are less obvious but crushingly real. We have seen proud and important companies brought low by the failure of their leaders to act with integrity and shoulder the responsibilities of leadership effectively. We worry about how many other organisations could be harboring dark dishonesties? How many organisations can truly claim to be great places to work? How many organisations can demonstrate that they are organisations worth working for? Employee engagement figures, as one potential proxy for healthy workplaces, continues to flat line according to longitudinal studies by Gallup.[1]

If the leadership crisis is real it isn’t because we have a shortage of people who are designated as leaders, those who have the positional authority and delegated power to lead our institutions, our governments and our companies. The leadership crisis is real because too many of our designated leaders are not leading effectively and seem in some ways to be avoiding doing so as if somehow just being the leader, being in positional authority, is enough. It isn’t. Here’s a test: when was the last time someone you are aware of (your boss maybe?) who holds positional authority as a leader in an organisation made a meaningful call or decision and stood by their judgment? In other words when did they last do something significant in service to the wider organisational goals, some memorable, impactful action. If you are struggling to think of something then you are not alone. It feels like too many of our leaders position themselves in such a way as to avoid taking action, to play safe, to pass the buck, to duck, weave and procrastinate.

It is in this context that I find I am regularly asked for advice on how people can take a lead in their company when they have no formal authority or position from which to do so. For many it is a question rooted in the human desire to fill the leadership vacuum, to take action in the face of so much inaction and stuckness. Simultaneously some organisations are trying to move away from traditional hierarchical structures that fix positional and management authority through a line system towards something much lighter, flatter, more matrix and more project-based. My observation is that what most of these companies are trying to achieve is a change in behaviour, and especially leadership behaviour, but they don’t know how to do that so they change the structure instead. We know that organisational structure should follow the purpose of that organisation. Too often it is the structure that dictates the purpose and we end up operating within the limits imposed upon us by structure, by our organisational operating systems. In the context of leadership we don’t make a leader simply by reorganising the structure in such a way that tells someone they are one. Or do we? Isn’t that what we instinctively do when we promote someone to a level where they have positional authority? What happens when we create a flatter more ‘empowering’ culture? Does leadership flow?

To answer these questions and illuminate the problem of how to lead when we have little or no authority to do so (to fill the leadership gap) we need to explore what we mean by ‘leadership’ because it is a term loaded with meaning but whose definition can be elusive.

There are many ways of looking at leadership and many ways of developing leaders. There is, for example, a long history of thinking about leadership in terms of exceptional personality – the ‘leaders-are-born-not- made’ theory; but if personality was the only factor we would be forced to rely for leadership on accidents of birth and would write-off most people as potential leaders. It is hard not to think about leadership in this way – it is a default setting for many people, but social scientists, searching for the personality factors that would reliably predict leadership ability, have been unable to agree on anything more than a handful of very general traits – things like intelligence, drive and trustworthiness. For anyone trying to develop their own or others’ leadership, the personality theory presents serious difficulties: not only is it not clear which factors should be developed, but it is not at all clear whether it is possible for personality traits deliberately to be developed. Given these difficulties, we need a more nuanced view of leadership that can support practicable leadership development. For me, the important components of that nuanced view can be summarised in three connected points. Firstly that it is easier to develop the capacity for leadership than it is to make a leader. Secondly, that leadership happens as action: when one person does or says something that changes a course of events or changes somebody’s view or inspires someone to do something they would not otherwise have done. Thirdly, that there is no one correct and universal way of looking at leadership – that there as many kinds of leadership as there are people, and as many kinds of leadership action as there are situations and contexts (or, in other words, the study of leadership is idiographic).

A great starting point for understanding leadership is to simply assume that everyone has the capacity for leadership in some degree, however small it may be in some. It is not an unreasonable assumption, most human capacities are normally distributed. This capacity may be thought of as a potential, stored as in a battery until the right circumstances come along to release it, or to complete the circuit. So in a moment anyone might rise to the occasion, speak out or stand up, take a chance that has an effect on those around and makes something happen that would not otherwise have happened. It seems to be the case, that it is a lot easier to develop a capacity than it is to change someone’s personality directly. For me it is capacity that provides our entry point not some contested view of the relevance and utility of personality perspectives.

It is also clear that leadership is only ever manifest as action. We might refer to the moment of decision, when someone steps up to the plate, as an act of leadership. It is an act of leadership whether the actor is the Chief Executive or the humblest operative: we might expect it to happen rather more regularly in the case of the CEO, but in essence, it is the same thing whoever does it. A working definition of an act of leadership might be that the action is regarded as sincere and legitimate by others, that it is felt by others to be plausible and to have some chance of bringing about the right result and that they, in turn, are moved by it to act. Think about our test earlier, asking you to think of something that someone in positional authority had done that was significant and meaningful in provoking necessary change. Now extend that thought to include anyone in the organisation. Perhaps through that lens we can start to see leadership occurring in places where there is little or no formal authority to lead?

So everyone has the capacity to act, but not everyone always does. To develop that capacity, we need to work out what makes the difference between action and inaction. The academic literature gives us many clues to what this might be, for example, we know that people are often unwilling to act to help others if they think that there is someone else better equipped than they are, or if they, the actor are anonymous and/or unaccountable. There may be some ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (Latane & Darley, 1970)[2] or ‘attenuated reciprocity’ a term borrowed from property law to describe a situation where one person feels that their social obligations are reduced because they are unlikely to meet people again. Another thing that might make a difference is that one person may recognise the need for action sooner than another. What we know, from research in groups presented with relatively unusual situations, is that it is easier to respond if you have an available mental model of what is going on, or if you have rehearsed in your mind the possibility, or, crucially, if you are ready to accept the situation as novel, and to suspend judgment long enough for a new interpretation to form (Weick, 1995).[3] These two things – willingness to act and having a model that tells you when action is necessary – are both factors that make it more likely that someone will show up when necessary. Notice the strong tendency for leadership metaphors to be upwards: stand up and be counted, rise to the occasion, take a stand, step up to the plate: the surface leadership theme is salience; the deeper leadership theme is about taking risks.

It is clear that there is no single way of looking at leadership. Every time an act of leadership happens (so long as somebody notices it) a microcosm is created in which many conditions and variables are enfolded. Leadership therefore is not a person, or a position, but an act and such action can and should be manifest across society, across and within organisations at all levels.

So we return to the question how can we lead when we are not the leader? Our brief review of the notion of leadership seems to pose a counter question, how can we notlead when leadership is required? For leadership to happen three things need to take place: firstly we all need to notice that action is required. We are all familiar with that feeling that something must be done or that something could be done. Leading without being the leader in part means stepping up and taking risks in acting. So, the second thing that is required to lead when you are not the leader is to decide to act or not. In a previous post I discussed the idea of a ‘responsible leadership’ being rooted in ‘integrity at the moment of decision’. To help you decide whether to take leadership action (or not) check your conscience in the moment of decision; conscience is a useful guide to action. Failure to act in line with conscience is at the heart of our leadership crisis, a crisis characterised by good people doing nothing. The leadership gap at the heart of the leadership crisis could also be referred to as a ‘saying/doing gap’ where we fail to walk our own talk. Then the final element for leadership to happen is that there is an action, something is done that moves or changes things.

So how do we build our capacity to lead, to notice, decide and act? Of course, there are many ways to help build the capacity for leadership, but one seems to be crucial, especially to supporting the process of leading when you are not the leader. It is Mindfulness (Weick, 2001[4], Carrol, 2007[5]).

Mindfulness is part self- awareness and self-monitoring, part alertness, sensitivity to others and situational flexibility, and part being poised to act. It is also mindfulness of purpose, that is having present to one’s mind a general goal that shapes momentary action, a goal that one is able to articulate – that has been thought out, that is always evolving and deepening and that is connected to a fundamental moral, spiritual or social imperative. Mindfulness connects conscience with action and, crucially helps us to notice, to focus our attention both externally and internally connecting the world with our personal internal state and helping us to successfully navigate that antagonistic boundary.

Mindfulness through some kind of meditative practice has become very popular over recent years. Exponents enthusiastically report improved levels of concentration and focus, a drop in anxiety and a greater level of appreciation and connection. In leadership terms it is ’clarity of perception’ that mindfulness seems to bring that assists the process of noticing and acting.

We desperately need to close the leadership gap. We need more leadership action, not more leaders. We need all of us to step up and to take responsibility for taking the action that we see as missing and are aching for. In my view we need to combine an individual mindfulness practice with a dispensing of simple assumptions about what leadership is and is not. And to acknowledge that we are all called to lead, in the moment, in the face of our conscience and in the sure and certain knowledge that it is the only way that we will make the world a better place.


[2] Latané, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[3] Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

[4] Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Oxford: Blackwell

[5] Carroll, M. (2007) The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through. Boston, Trumpeter Books.



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