Can You Really Lead Without A Title?

The Myth About Influence

Back in a prior career, I was in the retirement plan division of a large insurance company. And after a few years, I was promoted to a regional team leader position. And this meant I had a team under me for which I was responsible. 

There are two individuals from this team that stand out from that leadership experience. The first was an analyst who complained about any roadblock that was laying across his path. Thinking was confined to his desk. Every molehill was a mountain. Every customer was an idiot. Every problem was a setback with no creative solutions in sight. 

And we had several conversations about these things. He was never going to go further than his current influence because that is what he chose for himself. Victim.

The second analyst approached his position very differently. Setbacks were opportunities to “wow” a customer. Thinking was big picture. Mountains were designed to be traversed. People were meant to be served. He came to me with ideas for how a process could serve our clients better.

And we also had several conversations about these things. And, yes, he did end up going further than his current influence because that is what he chose for himself. Mover and shaker.

What is the best way to lead without a title?

I have been asked the question about how one is to lead if they do not have the “title.” You know, bestowed authority. And that is a valid and relevant question. And it deserves an answer because most of those in the workforce are not working from a “title” position.

So then, can one lead out of this position? Is it possible to execute positive change and have a leveraged influence when there has been nothing given to you to “own”?

In a word…YES!

Perhaps you are mulling around these very thoughts in your own mind but yet uncertain what are the next steps. And without any type of compass or others speaking into your life, you just…stagnate. You are not moving backwards, but yet there is no forward momentum either. And to just exist in your vocation is a bad spot to be.

So in reflecting about these two analysts under me, the second clearly had influence and led but not out of a title given to him. The first continued to sputter, even after several conversations with him.

What made the difference? Was one just inherently more gifted? More talented? More “glass half full”? I do not think so.

What I do believe is it came down to one quality that has been consistent among those who show that they can lead even without the designated title. And what is that attribute?

Initiative.

The simplistic power of initiative

What is initiative? Simply this – “a personal quality that shows a willingness to get things done and take responsibility.” In my example above, the first analyst would often tell me why something was a bad idea and why it was the customer’s fault. The second analyst simply got it done. He took ownership beyond his job description. And it made a dramatic amount of difference in how these two were perceived by others on the team.

A lack of initiative is similar to living your life as if you are at a street crossing sign. You are at the crosswalk, and the streets may be empty for a mile each way, but you are not going to move until you have pressed the button and have waited for the walk signal.

No thinking required. No extra skills necessary.

If you feel “stuck” because you have been led to believe that the only way to have impact is to have a “position,” allow me, if you would, to push back on some of that thinking. 

As I viewed people over the years who have had this trait, there are three defining characteristics that I would like to describe.

Keep going…keep going

People with initiative are initiators. They go beyond just doing the task because they are always thinking of a bigger bulls-eye. How a process can be streamlined. How the client can be “wow’d.” How the vision can be obtained. That is going beyond the task. I appreciate those who do a task well, but it catches my attention when someone gets the job done and adds some “special sauce” that shows that they own it. It is not just a job; it is their job.

It’s like they can read my mind

There are two ways a person can view their role: 1) they can hear and understand instructions from me and that is what gets done, or 2) they can ask enough questions of me that they understand what is top tier and accomplish things as if they can read my mind. They anticipate. They run their assignments through the grid of “what would Antone do? How would he respond? How would he resolve this?”

I value that level of thinking. And it is not that they then go rogue and do their own thing. Because that leads to my third trait.

Communicate. And then communicate again. 

This should be an easy one but it is often not. When I was a regional team leader that I mentioned earlier, I learned that my up-line wanted to be kept in the loop. No surprises. Communicate and anticipate the questions. And this is where one must learn discernment. Some want full details. Others want the summary overview. The important thing is to know which best serves them in making them successful.

If you feel as if your career is stale because you do not have that elusive leadership role, my advice is to stay patient and practice these three characteristics of what is means to be an initiator. In a world full of “just do what I am told,” modeling initiative will begin to create more than just ripples. 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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