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open book with title: Leading Without Supervising

I’m not a supervisor. Or a manager. Or even the cruel or gentle taskmaster of one student employee. But, in some respects, I feel I’m a leader in my professional life.

From my own experience, and from watching others in action, here are some elements I’d call “leading from within.”

Taking on leadership positions

Want your voice heard on policy decisions? Being an officer on a committee is frequently the path to that goal. In that role you may have a tad more clout in shaping discussions.

Enjoy organizing, hate evaluating? Both ongoing organizational groups, as well as ad hoc projects, need people to create expectations and shape projects. The payoff? Earning significant input into processes and outcomes.

Responding

Are you asked for input? Rejoice! Your opinion may be the one that makes something a whole lot more marvelous. (Or it could be ignored. Such is life.) My biggest challenges? I’ve got two. The first is working on only responding when I’ve got something useful to say. The second is responding when the issue seems unimportant to me, but is obviously important to the person asking for input.

Offering a friendly shoulder

Personal life? Professional life? Some elements inevitably intertwine. Fellow employees may seek someone who’s not their boss, and may not even be someone they regularly work with, as a sounding board for issues. Earning this kind of trust feels terrific. And knowing you’ve cultivated the shoulders of others to lean on, as the need arises, is a comfort.

Are there downfalls to choosing the route of subtle leadership? Yes:

Feeling left out?

Yeah, too bad. Designated leaders do earn the inside track on many matters.

Feeling a slight unease

Though I’m too far along in life to feel much true embarrassment for any decisions I make that don’t kill kittens, I have, more than once, endured a sort of squinty look from official leaders, usually accompanied by a questioning tilt of the head, when I say that management was never in the cards for me.

Being a nosy body

When you’re not a leader, but brimming with brilliant (brilliant, I tell you!) ideas, you may be perceived as offering your opinion on (a.k.a. sticking your nose into) too many issues. Which leads to the next point.

Needing to learn patience

I’ve learned to wait longer than I used to before noting a non-urgent perceived problem. Generally, that problem is being addressed somewhere in my organization.

Salary

Yeah, there’s that. But other non-monetary rewards may be offered or available if your value is noted.


I do feel there are some specific benefits to leadership without supervision. One is the ability, as even a longtime employee with “high level” expectations from management, to participate in frontline service. Having the experienced and the freshly passionate working together is to everyone’s benefit. Those who’ve been around have great breadth and depth of information. Newer people notice new angles and directions.
Perhaps the leading from within choice best fits a person with dilettante tendencies. Hey! I can’t lead! I think. My mind, which I acknowledge has only so much capacity, overflows with ever-tumbling thoughts and ideas that cry to be examined and acted upon. And I even follow-up on some! I feel certain that daily oversight of others and big picture thinking could make the whole shebang just explode.

hands holding a lit sparkler with text Lead From Where You Are

Leading from where you are is about about recognizing your individual power and leading from whatever position you’re in.

We go through our entire lives being put into boxes – it’s how we create our identity. This is especially true at work. You get hired and you’re given a piece of paper that tells you what you do. The rest is vaguely described as ‘other duties as assigned.’

Even if you love your job this can feel pretty limiting. I can speak to this as I am a career assistant – my title has been ‘assistant somethingorother’ for about 10 years. Whenever I’ve been asked about my jobs I’ve usually replied, “It’s pretty good but I don’t want to be someone’s assistant for the rest of my life.”

That changed when I started working for Denver Public Library. I am the executive assistant to the city librarian and it was here that I first heard about Lead from Where You Are. I have become activated in my job in a totally new way and now I think maybe I could be someone’s assistant for the rest of my life. It’s not about my title, it’s about how I live my job.

We all have complex inner lives, right? We have desires, dreams, and ambitions. Those goals are usually not even that secret. How many people do you know who are working whatever job they can get while going to school? It’s not even about education. It’s about the fact that most of us want to feel valued. We want to be heard at work and we want to be respected. We are not automatons.

So here’s the big secret about leading from where you are:

You do not have to manage people to lead.

You don’t have to a fancy title. You do not need a spiffy corner office. Everything you need to be a leader comes from within you. No, this is not nonsense. It’s about how you engage with the world. You have to look around you and ask yourself some questions:

  • How do I add value?
  • What do I see that other people don’t?
  • What else can I contribute?

Once you start feeling confident that you are adding value to your organization, leading becomes easier. Realizing your leadership potential means you need to communicate with your team and have relationships built on mutual respect; that includes the people above, below and around you.

Communication and relationship building are skills that require you having a voice and being able to speak up. I know this is difficult for some people and it’s really a whole different topic (which I’ll explore in another blog post!)! I encourage you to practice in any environment that is safe for you.

Employers, you are KEY to helping your staff lead from where they are. This concept requires trust and, as I mentioned above, mutual respect. Employees are much more likely to lead and to make suggestions if you make it safe for them to do so. Help create an environment that fosters collaboration and ideation.

Lead from Where You Are does not mean your workplace is suddenly a wild west free-for-all. People who want to lead, check your ego. We all love to improve other people’s stuff (“Oh hey what you’re doing is terrible!”). Look for things you can control! Remember, you need to communicate and develop your relationships. You can have the greatest idea in the world and it will get shut down if people feel like you don’t respect them.

Bosses, allowing your employees to lead means you must listen with an open mind. Take the suggestions that make sense and USE them. And give credit where credit is due. Lead from Where You Are doesn’t mean you have to do everything someone suggests. That would be crazy.

Lead from Where You Are is a collaborative process. When people at all levels feel engaged and valued, everyone’s individual boxes come together and form a honeycomb. They are a true team. People can move in and out more freely and share ideas. An organization benefits from having a team of people who are all looking to improve the work and the mission.

This isn’t going to be simple. So let’s do some brainstorming. Leave some comments below and we’ll find out where there may be sticking points and how to potentially overcome them. Here are some thoughts to get you going:

  • What does it look like for you to Lead from Where You Are? This will look different for everyone, even people who share the same position.
  • Think about how you already communicate with your team. When have people responded most positively?
  • Think about your current position. What do you see that needs improvement? Who do you need to work with to make that change?

Now, if you’ve read this and are shaking your head, thinking, “That won’t work where I am,” I’ll remind you: you do have to try. You may have to try multiple times and in different ways. Part of leading is taking a leap of faith. If you do try, and it doesn’t work, consider that sometimes leading from where you are means leading yourself somewhere else.