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Leading Without Authority, You Can Do It!

“You don’t understand; I can’t do this leadership stuff with my team; they don’t report to me!” I’ve heard variations of this statement on a regular basis from students coming into our leadership courses. Sometimes it has to do with particular aspects of leading, such as coaching or accountability, while at other times it has more to do with the legal environment and how contracted labor is allowed to be managed.

With outsourcing to contract labor and with matrixed project environments, it is not uncommon to find yourself leading a team comprised partially, or completely, of individuals who do not directly report to you. In fact, one of the more common requests of students in our leadership courses is to learn more about leading without authority.

“I can’t do this, they don’t report to me…” is a cop out. In the absence of leadership, someone will lead. Do you want to give that role to someone else by default? Or do you want to do what you are expected to do and be a leader? If so, here is some food for thought:

  • “Know yourself, know your people, and know your stuff” is a good starting point for leading both direct reports and those over whom you have no direct authority. Remember, most people WANT to be led and will allow themselves to be led by someone that they trust and believe in. The existence of a line connecting them on an organizational chart has nothing to do with that relationship!
  • Those who get hung up on whether or not team members report to them are usually operating from a faulty perception of leadership. That perception is typically the command and control style of leadership that we know does not work in most modern workplaces. Any follower of this newsletter knows that leadership isn’t telling someone what to do. Rather, it’s about influence, isn’t it?
  • There are no shortcuts. Getting to know your people and building a trusting relationship with them is as important for contract labor as it is with direct reports. Having a personal leadership philosophy, and using it, is a great first step.
  • Going out of your way to not treat contract labor as the “hired help” but rather as a valued member of the team may set you apart from the norm. One student of mine recently found out that treating contract labor with the same interest as company personnel rapidly got him the reputation that he was a project manager that folks wanted to work for.
  • Contract or matrixed individuals still have motivational needs, still have career aspirations, still have unique communication styles; in short, they are still messy, imperfect, and sometimes unpredictable human beings that are a challenge to get moving in the right direction at the right time. Do the work: find their motivators, discover how they prefer to communicate, get to know them.
  • The fact that a team member happens to report to someone else or to a different company is no excuse to shirk leadership responsibilities. Doing so may be expedient or easier in the short-term, but will also make it difficult to get consistent and superior results.

Don’t let a little thing like who someone reports to get in the way of being the great leader you want to be. If you ever find yourself thinking some form of “I can’t lead…” try asking yourself, “If the tables were turned, how would I want to be led?”


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