Leading Without Authority

Jan 27, 2015 16:53 · 1760 words · 9 minute read

I have never had one of those positions where people had to do what I say or else! Honestly, I think that has been for the best because with very few exceptions most of us will not have authority over someone we are trying to persuade; we can’t tell our boss to do it our way or else. Even in cases where we do have authority over a person or a group of people, the moment we start invoking that authority as a means of changed, we have already failed. It may work in the short term, but it will seldom work in the long term.

This is my experience of leading without authority. I figured out most of this by leading student organizations in college and later by working in academic settings where the hierarchy is rather rigid. I think the most difficult part of any form of leadership without authority is to have patience. It’s easy to propose an idea, get in a huge argument, cause an uproar, and then sulk away feeling resentful. In fact, I think a lot of people prefer that to the hard work of negotiating change. However, this will fail to bring about meaningful change.

###What Can I Do? The best way to implement change is to understand that it is a process, not a single moment. If a proposal is being made to a room full of people for the first time, it is doomed to fail. Humans are generally conservative when approached with change and, for the most part, that is good. Organizations that are not at least a little conservative have a hard time remaining focused.

With that said, I think the key to leading without authority comes down to three things: communication, time, and focus. Here’s a brief summary of what those mean:

  • Communication : Getting buy-in by talking with individuals or groups as often as necessary before an official proposal is made.

  • Time: Waiting until the correct opportunity arises. In other words, not trying to make a change when there are clearly other more pressing priorities or before there has been ample buy-in.

  • Focus:Keeping a project moving ahead, albeit slowly, and keeping the discussion moving towards implementation instead of delay. Probably the most underutilized tool, but the most important.

###Communication Barring some odd circumstances, we all have the ability to talk (or email, or chat, or send passenger pigeons) and the root of all else is using this ability. It seems over simple, but too often people hoard their communication like a limited resource and then expect all other people to follow them the second the make a suggestion or proposal. I got a piece of advice early in my career that I think back to constantly: Never make a proposal in a meeting unless you are sure it will pass. In fact, I found this piece of advice so good that during a panel on leading in libraries I made the statement that “being in meetings is a skill that must be developed”. The whole room had the chance to laugh at me, but I stand by what I said. Good leaders can predict the outcome or wait until they can.

Here’s a practical example: I had a time where I ran a small library in an academic department. While there, I noticed that the library was full. Seriously. There was no space on the shelves. Not only that, but there were significant portions of the collection that had nothing to do with the department. People where just cleaning out their offices and houses and dumping them there. Well, I proposed cleaning it out in a meeting and everyone there, every single person, decided it was a bad idea and said no. It blew my mind. It was so clearly a problem.

Well, I was young, naive and thought the people would listen to good ideas. Before the next meeting I put together a few charts showing total space, space used, potential space savings – I should note I worked with scientists, so they loved the charts – and then I spent the next weeks randomly stopping all the members in the hall and casually mentioning the issue and one or two examples of what we could remove (a book on caring for your pet goldfish … from 1970). Sure enough, next time everyone agreed the issue needed to be addressed.

Every proposal I made since then has followed the same approach. No, charts are not always necessary, but having a variety of data is important. Some people like numbers. Some people like anecdotes. Some people like visuals. Be prepared for them all and only use those that are necessary (people can also sniff out overeagerness which triggers defenses).

An important corollary to this is to always catch relationship problems early. When building support it’s important to ensure that even those that are skeptical of a proposal feel they are included in the discussion. The absolute worst thing that can happen is for the issue to turn into a me vs. you or us vs. them situation. Disagreements are bound to happen and there will almost certainly be people that will not be convinced. That’s ok, but try to ensure the disagreement is over the idea and does not become a personal conflict. Tribal resistance is far more difficult to handle than differences based on evidence or prioritizations.


If there was a single difference between leading with authority and leading without authority, it is the role of time. In short, those with authority have the ability to move much faster. Even if they are not leading by fiat (I’m in charge, so do it), they can set the agenda with ease, people will be more likely to give them a chance, and so on.

Unlike communication, time is a personal discipline. Effective leaders have patience. Leaders have the patience to wait until the opportunity is right. They have the patience to build support. They have the patience to suppress emotional responses that might feel good, but will certainly torpedo a project. And they have the patience to know when an opportunity has passed and to back off until the time is right to try again.

Time and patience are most important when dealing with resistance or contentious issues. I had one particular meeting on a project I was asked to lead. I decided to meet with a few individuals who were, to put it lightly, not excited about the idea. The meeting was pretty tense. They were very direct and aggressive in questioning, but I set a goal of responding politely, but assertively, listening, but still willing to challenge their ideas and points. They certainly were not persuaded that day, but instead of leaving the room with personal stakes and entrenched positions, it kept the focus on the goals of the project (increased staff participation in training) and not the personalities or solutions.

Time is a difficult thing and people are often very afraid of it. There is a nagging feeling that if an issue is not fixed today, this very day, then there will be chaos. We all know this is crazy, but we all still fall for it. So why is time difficult? If we are not careful, we lose site of the goal and get caught in the implementation of which time is a key part. Conversely, time can be an asset, if one can keep focus on the end goal, then time is an ally that can be used to change minds, build support, and generally create more likelihood of a successful result.


Get Started: I’ve found it’s much easier to dismiss ideas in the abstract than it is to dismiss concrete things. Sometime the best way to get support is to show some value. Now this is a tricky place to be. You don’t want to be accused of wasting time or ignoring other responsibilities, but you can’t exactly request time to work on some unapproved project (that would be missing the whole point).

The cliche is, of course, “beg for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission”. That can be a useful concept, but I always thought it had a negative connotation. Rather, try to get something minimal while always ensuring there is never a disruption to your current workload. It’s also ok to mention to your boss or whoever, that you are exploring a side project. For example, after having a quick exchange about something else just say “I’m also looking a little into {{Foo}}. I think it can have the potential to BIG BENEFIT”. Most of the time this will either get dismissed with a “yeah sure” or you may get a skeptical look, which can be answered with an assurance that this is on the side and will no way impact all the other super important work you are doing.

Keep Focus: A lot of projects get ignored into non-existence. So, keeping the focus is key to giving life to ideas, especially those ideas that are already on the edge of survival. Now what does this mean? It does not mean bringing it up constantly and annoying everyone. In fact, that is a guaranteed way to create resistance.

Rather keeping focus means always taking responsibility for next steps. Anytime a meeting ends, there should be a list of next steps (action items, if you like that jargon). As is usual, this sounds super easy, but is actually quite hard. Most meetings are ended with an agreement that something is good or something is bad, but almost no forward moving direction. Having a plan of the next steps – Contact Stakeholders, Write a Proposal, Get Feedback from Another Department – will keep the project moving forward.

The other side of this is keeping an idea alive. A common way to kill an idea is that it’s not the right time. Of course, there is usually never a good time for any idea, but sometimes that true. Maybe someone is out of town, or it’s the holiday season. Who knows. A good leader will revive an issue that has started to stagnate. Sometimes its just as easy as touching base with the decision makers or checking in with those that are working on pieces of the project. Sometimes its hard and requires starting nearly from scratch. That’s fine. The goal is to make constant progress no matter how small. Eventually, the idea will not seem novel or strange it will seem normal and obvious. After, that it’s all about implementation.