How to Lead From a Non-Leadership Role

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How to display leadership without actually being a leader, and insights on how to become a respected contributor to your team.

You don’t need authority from others to be a leader. In fact, most people are given official leadership roles after they’ve exhibited signs of great leadership. If you have high aspirations for your career, most experts recommend that you should take every opportunity to step outside your role and prove you’re capable of much more. Taking on the mantle of leader won’t just help you, it will help everyone around you. Honing leadership skills will improve your workplace dynamic, increase the efficiency of your whole team, and raise the bar for the quality of the work. Here are a few ways you can lead from within your team, and set yourself up for career growth.

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Leadership & Teamwork: 10 ways leaders can help their teams

So why is teamwork and leadership important? Together they provide clarity for your team and have a direct impact on the vision of the company. But what does that look like in practice? What kind of actions can you take every day to help your team succeed? Here are ten ways to help your team do better.

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1. Lead By: Example

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One of many US Navy SEAL mantras is “under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” That’s why the Navy SEAL program is so rigorous. SEALS strive for excellence instead of settling for average performance. This kind of leadership achievement doesn’t happen overnight – you’ll have to prepare for it well ahead of time.

If you want to learn to lead, find the best leaders around you.

They work hard, look out for others and continue to look at the big picture. If you put in the effort to develop that commitment and perspective, your peers will naturally look to you for guidance. Your efforts will inspire them to work harder, and they’ll regard you as an expert, coming to you with any questions or problems.

Pursue craftsmanship, not passion

Make sure you dedicate yourself to hard work wisely, however. Spreading yourself thin by taking on too many responsibilities will only scatter your focus and reduce your mastery of crucial skills. Instead, you need to find a specific area of work that you can work towards gaining mastery over.

But what should you choose? Most people try to find a job they’re passionate about. But in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport suggests that following your “passion” won’t lead to a compelling career. He argues that a passion means you have to stick to a preconceived notion of what you might like. This will lead to dissatisfaction, job-hopping and a lack of direction in your career. Instead, he suggests that craftsmanship leads to career growth. You have to find an area of expertise that matches your values and go all-in. If you don’t improve quickly, switch to something else. The passion will come with mastery and compel you to keep at it and deepen your expertise. Before you know it, you’ll be the best employee on the team and inadvertently leading by example.

2. Lead By: Empowerment

Positions of power make people feel happy, but not for the reasons you may think. According to a Tel Aviv University study, power made subjects feel “more true to themselves,” compelling them to act based on values that they believe in. This authenticity increased worker engagement and overall well-being.

Extraverted leaders tend to take control more and delegate. Introverted leaders, however, tend to empower their employees to make their own decisions. Leadership expert Karl Moore suggest that great leaders are “ambidextrous.” They know when to bail their team out of trouble, but they also can take a step back and encourage their employees take initiative.

Get power by giving power

If you’re not yet in a leadership position, and you don’t quite have the authority to delegate responsibilities, how do you give power when you don’t have any yet? For this, we can take a lesson from the Roman emperor Augustus who “excelled all in influence, although possessed no official power.” You don’t need to be in a power position to have a positive influence on everyone you work with. Within your team, the best way to help people take initiative is by helping them overcome roadblocks. When most people run into problems, they give up and go back to a default habit. But if you’re invested in people’s success, you won’t take no for an answer. This might mean putting together a cross-functioning team, or helping a teammate get the resources they need. You’ll inspire people to improve their job performance and contribute to a culture of trust and appreciation.

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9 Ways to Build Trust Within a Team

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3. Lead By: Design

A third approach to leadership is put forth by business strategy expert Bill Bartnett. He compares an excellent engineer, Bruno Delean- who led by example- to Steve Luczo, who led by design. Luczo fixed systems and better organized his whole company to streamline the innovation process. Delean encouraged innovation once, but Luczo set his team up to innovate over and over again, propelling Seagate Technologies to become an industry leader. If you lead by example or lead by empowerment, you’re capped by your own ability. One person can only achieve so much. But if you put the right systems in place, you can get the whole team to meet their potential, in the short term, and long after you’re gone.

Put systems in place

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The best thing about leading by design is that it’s both the most effective and the most accessible form of leadership. Any person on a team can propose a new tool, a more efficient process, and if they can get the whole team on board, it’ll stick. Here are just a few ways of making your team more efficient:

  • Change your project management methodology (PMM). Many teams naturally resort to what’s called the waterfall methodology. They go from task to task in sequential order. But there are many more PMMs that allow teams to work asynchronously and not lose momentum as they encounter stumbling blocks.

  • Find tools that streamline communication. The problem with small teams is that information isn’t centralized and can easily get lost. Look for a tool that’s right for your team and that allows you to have all projects and information accessible in once place.

  • Add automation. Rewriting that same email every day, or checking several different inboxes in the morning takes precious time away from everyone’s work day. Use automation tools like Zapier to automate tedious tasks and get more time back.

The best way to present your new ideas from a non-management role is to create documentation. Outline the current process and its inefficiencies, and then outline how things will work under the proposed system. Make sure to have quantifiable results that you can present to your manager and team (“we’ll save x minutes a week, serve y more clients”, etc.)

You are not your job description

It’s always easy to shrug off responsibility if it’s not part of your job description. But if you have leadership aspirations, you can’t be limited by the restrictions of your title. To prove yourself, you’ll need to make an impact in your team. You have to set an example, facilitate personal success for peers, and contribute to permanent positive changes in the structure of your organization. If you can do that, then the sky’s the limit.

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