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Lessons learned while leading without line authority

Over the course of my career I have been railing against the hierarchical nature of corporations. While I understand and value the experience gained while climbing up the career ladder, I also believe that intention is everything. The key question is why are you driven to climb? Is it for the money, prestige, and power (ego) that comes with positions of higher rank or are you climbing because your intent is to lead and make people's lives better (self-actualization)? I'm sure I am not the only person who has found that not everyone who arrives into the management ranks truly deserved to be there because their raison d'être was off. Unfortunately, many of them still succeed despite their ego centric motivations mostly because they achieve results by abusing their power.

Thankfully, I have been extremely fortunate to work for leaders and not managers - individuals who didn't see title so much as talent and who led without using the stick inherent in the designation of Boss, Director, General Manager, or Vice President. By tapping into and investing in their people, these leaders achieved maximum engagement, productivity, and exceptional results all without using their title or position to get what they wanted done. They earned my respect due to their competence, focus, strengths, and style. And I in turn worked exceptionally hard for them and was rewarded for delivering on my objectives.

I remember lessons from my early career days as a product manager in a pharma company and being given the task of influencing how regional sales directors and district managers implemented the strategies developed for our products. At first, I was extremely daunted by this responsibility because who was I -just some 25 year old kid with zero people management experience trying to convince leaders of people to listen to me. As I began interacting with my key stakeholders, however, I quickly saw that they needed the help I was offering - all I had to do was work my hardest to meet and exceed their needs and I would gain credibility and the more credibility I gained, the more my ability to influence them increased. This give and gain approach became the secret to my early career success.

When I finally got boosted into a leadership position myself, I also resolved to gain the respect of my teams this way - and I too saw phenomenal results as a line leader. The more I supported my teams, the more credibility I had to spend when I really needed them to follow me. I have returned to this overflowing well over and over again throughout my career, whether as a direct line leader or as a leader without authority.

Another approach that also has served me well, especially in my most recent post working in a regional capacity supporting marketers throughout a region of 30 diverse countries, has been to apply my experience and unique strengths to the problems I encountered in the position. I remembered the style of one of my all-time favorite leaders who taught me about finding the "halos" - or problems that no one was tackling for whatever reason. His philosophy was that you accumulated halos (or angel-wings if you prefer) by solving these types of problems for people. The simple concept being that the more halos you captured they greater your capacity to lead with or without line authority. And the easiest way to find halos is to truly listen to people's needs, frustrations, and concerns and then work to address them.

In summary, the greatest lesson I've learned about leading without line authority is that there is no difference between leading with or without authority because the key word is lead not authority. To lead is to take action, support, respond, and direct. Whether the person or persons being led reports to you is ultimately irrelevant provided that your intention behind leading them is sound.

What do you think of the give and gain and halo approach to leading without authority? What are some of your lessons learned? Let's discuss in the comments.

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