Real leadership is never a matter of mere formal authority. Leaders are effective when other people acknowledge them as such–by listening seriously to their ideas, valuing and following their suggestions for action, and turning to them for advice.
Opportunities to lead aren’t limited to times when you have formal authority over a particular team or venture. When you step forward and demonstrate leadership, you will contribute value to the project or enterprise–and strengthen your leadership skills.
In their book Lateral Leadership: Getting Things Done When You’re Not the Boss (2nd ed., Profile Books, 2004), Harvard negotiation specialist Roger Fisher and coauthor Alan Sharp lay out a useful five-step method for leading when you are not formally in charge. Its steps can be applied to virtually any project you’re involved in or team or meeting you participate in.
1. Establish goals
People accomplish the most when they have a clear set of objectives. It follows that any group’s first order of business is to write down exactly what it hopes to achieve. The person who asks the question “Can we start by clarifying our goals here?”–and who then assumes the lead in discussing and drafting those goals–is automatically taking a leadership role, whatever his or her position.
2. Think systematically
Observe your next meeting: people typically plunge right into the topic at hand and start arguing over what to do. Effective leaders, by contrast, learn to think systematically–that is, they gather and lay out the necessary data, analyze the causes of the situation, and propose actions based on this analysis. In a group, leaders help keep participants focused by asking appropriate questions. Do we have the information we need to analyze this situation? Can we focus on figuring out the causes of the problem we’re trying to solve?
3. Learn from experience–while it’s happening
Teams often plow ahead on a project, then conduct a review at the end to
figure out what they learned. But it’s more effective for teams (or individuals) to learn as they go along.
Anyone who prompts the group to engage in regular minireviews and learn from them is playing a de facto leadership role. Why is this ongoing process more effective than an after-action review? The events are fresh in everyone’s mind. And the team can use what they learn from each minireview to make needed adjustments to their work processes or their goals.
4. Engage others
A high-performing team engages the efforts of every member, and effective team leaders seek out the best fit possible between members’ interests and the tasks that need doing. Suggest writing down a list of chores and matching them up with individuals or subgroups. If no one wants a particular task, brainstorm ways to make that task more interesting or challenging. Help draw out the group’s quieter members so that everyone feels a part of the overall project.
5. Provide feedback
If you’re not the boss, what kind of feedback can you provide? One thing that’s always valued is simple appreciation–“I thought you did a great job in there.” Sometimes, too, you’ll be in a position to help people improve their performance through coaching. Effective coaches ask a lot of questions: “How did you feel you did on this part of the project?” They recognize that people may try hard and fail anyway: “What made it hard to accomplish your part of the task?” They offer thoughtful suggestions for improvement, being careful to explain the observation and reasoning that lie behind them.
by Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay