Leading Beyond Your Authority
In today’s complex and dotted-line organizational culture, your job frequently requires buy-in from people outside your direct authority. Influencing people who report to someone else can prove daunting—and an even greater challenge if you confuse the principles of leadership and authority. (They’re not the same.)
Contrary to what you may have learned in leadership training, you can effectively guide people who are outside your realm of authority. To do so, you must understand what leadership truly is and how it appears to those who are looking for it.
The traditional model of leadership requires control (authority) to “make” people do what they need to do. Fortunately, this has become an outdated philosophy that ignores basic human behavior.
Leadership vs. Authority
Leadership fosters inspiration, whereas authority produces obligation. Authority is the supervisory responsibility to direct, decide, and delegate. It is sometimes misused for personal gain.
In contrast, leadership establishes goals or visions and inspires people to achieve them—a process accomplished through influence. Those influenced positively will follow willingly (the essence of true leadership).
Influence is the foundation of leadership, according to Clay Scroggins, author of How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge: Leveraging Influence When You Lack Authority (Zondervan, 2017). "Leaders who consistently leverage their authority to lead are less effective in the long term than leaders who leverage their influence,” he writes.
While almost everyone has the ability to influence others and lead in some capacity, many leaders fail to be inspirational and fall back into their default position: an insistence on asserting their authority.
Your ability to influence people will determine whether you can lead those who report to others. Work on mastering the following principles to increase your sphere of influence.
- Be a Worthy Leader
Show others how reliable, trustworthy, and respectable you can be. Demonstrate confidence if you want others to work with self-reliance, advises Patricia Simpson in Leading Without Authority, a July 2016 Leadership Institute article.
Know your abilities, limitations, values, mission, and perspective to perform an accurate self-assessment. Work to improve your skills; you’ll be rewarded with greater trust.
Leaders who care about others are worth following. Being helpful, especially when there’s no direct benefit to yourself, commands respect and influence.
Take ownership of the quest for positive change, while also giving credit to others. Listening to others’ ideas and valuing their input forges a collective ownership.
- Promote Relationships
People-focused leaders enjoy the greatest professional success, as influence is founded on relationships. People find it easier to follow the ideas of someone they like, respect, and trust, suggests Erica Hersh in Leading Outside Your Authority, a 2015 article for the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Show interest in people, and regularly communicate how much they’re valued. Strong relationships are characterized by cooperation, collaboration, and implementation. Relationships also develop into networks, where influence is compounded.
- Build Credibility
People seek leaders with the insight to pinpoint needed improvements and the skills to implement the necessary changes.
Your capacity to see things objectively—and realistically—engenders trust. Leaders who openly tackle and overcome obstacles with regularity and positivity are deemed credible. Be a critical thinker, not a critical person.
Become known for never giving up, while putting the organization’s needs ahead of your own, and behave like a team player. Demonstrate that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, and eschew the “it’s not my job” mentality. A powerful role model sees a need that no one else is addressing and works toward remedying it.
- Challenge the Status Quo
Perhaps the toughest test you’ll face when working outside your authority is challenging the system.
By questioning the status quo, you insinuate that change is needed. Some may take your comments personally, unable to separate the policy from the personal, while others may resist your efforts, fearing the potential fallout.
Navigating these treacherous waters requires a multifaceted approach:
- Ensure that your motives and values are honorable and evident.
- Pay attention to your body language, tone, verbiage, and timing when expressing your thoughts and concerns.
- Consider hiring a qualified professional leadership coach to offer helpful direction and work with you on your relational skills.
- Clearly communicate why you’re challenging the status quo. Declare your noble intentions from the start.
- Present compelling solutions instead of merely identifying a problem, Simpson advises. Develop a reputation for being a problem-solver for your boss, with everyone’s best interests in mind. Paint a picture of positivity and mutual benefit.
When you’re in tune with your boss’s needs, you’re in the best position to lead change. Choose your battles, and be willing to let some things go. Some of your ideas will be rejected, and you’ll take some wrong turns. The process is an opportunity to grow professionally as you expand your sphere of influence.
- Enlist Colleagues’ Support
You’ll build an even stronger position when you harness the influence of peer-level leaders.
Reach out to these colleagues in a positive, sincere, and nonthreatening way. By working together, you have a greater chance of convincing higher-level managers to move forward.
Present solutions as vehicles for achieving joint benefits. This approach can be a compelling start to improving the status quo.
- Show Initiative
Anticipate leadership opportunities—and be ready when the call to action arrives.
Better yet, recognize that “each of us has a unique opportunity to create something right where we are,” as Scroggins says. “It doesn’t require special authority or a fancy title or having the corner office…Don’t shrink back until someone calls your number.”
Be a self-starter. Seize every opportunity to lead by example.
...About Dr. Maynard Brusman
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