How to Lead Without Authority

In a business world of shrinking hierarchies and individual contributors, one of the toughest challenges for the high-achiever is learning to lead without authority.  In my years in the workforce, I’ve been responsible for several large, multi-departmental initiatives with only a few direct reports to engage.  Here’s what I’ve learned through my own experiences:

Let your passion shine through

It’s hard to be critical of someone earnest, and if you infuse your communication with a genuine sense of excitement about the challenge ahead, your colleagues will naturally want to follow your lead.  Show them – through your behavior – why you got into this field in the first place, and what your experiences (good and bad) have shown you about what needs to be done next.

Appear humble

It’s bad enough when your boss has an ego that needs some serious downsizing, but it’s even less appealing when someone without power thinks too highly of himself.  The manner and content of your communication must demonstrate that you are pursuing this approach because it’s the right thing to do for the organization, not because you will receive personal credit or rewards.

Develop deep relationships

There is no shortage of psychology and business research out there showing that people like to work with individuals they like and to whom they can relate.  Before you attempt to lead your colleagues, get to them know first.  Spend time with them outside the office and show sincere interest in their personal and professional lives.

Help them help you

Your colleagues will be more likely to come on board if you make it clear to them why your idea’s success is tangibly tied to their own.  Take steps to understand the pain your colleagues are facing (an inefficient process, etc.) and create solutions that will make everyone’s lives easier.

Don’t be overcontrolling

Since you don’t have official authority, don’t get caught up in acting like you do.  Use your expertise to guide and support your colleagues, but release the need to micromanage every aspect of a project.  If you share your ideas and then allow your co-workers to take partial ownership of their implementation, they will gradually put more trust in you and the approach.

What have you found works when you need to influence or lead without authority?

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  • Well done, concise article Alexandra!

    Lou Piombino

  • Jessica M. Ramirez

    Great article Alex. I look forward to practicing your leadership advice when I land a job soon.

    Keep up the great work.

    Jessica M. Ramirez
    University of California, Los Angeles
    Bachelor of Arts, History and Anthropology
    University of California, Irvine
    Masters of Arts, History

  • alexandralevit

    Thanks so much, Lou!

  • alexandralevit

    Great, Jessica, keep me posted on your progress.

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  • This is so right on. A few years ago, I was tasked with a project that was *way* above my pay grade, and given no direct reports or even a title bump to go with the responsibility. Additionally, the scope of this responsibility extended well beyond my own department, and demanded that others–throughout the company–make adjustments to their own workflows. Needless to say, all these 'adjustments' meant 'here's more work to do'.

    Alexandra's guide is a point-by-point summary of how I made it work. In my case, I started by noting that the additional layer of work mirrored what we were already doing, and that my top priority was making sure that I didn't duplicate any dysfunction that people were already contending with. I had a conversation to this effect with everyone who touched (or was touched by) this project.

    Having identified plenty of dysfunction, I was able to pitch the new work-flow as a model system that could be used to guide us away from the old and less functional system. Now people were intrigued. And because I'd gone down the line with the original question, I could now tailor this pitch to each individual and department, making the case in terms they understood intimately.

    When the time came to share the new workflow, I did so in an all-hands meeting where I made it clear that I probably botched every link, and just wanted to confirm. As it turned out, I had botched every link – and people did not hesitate to let me know. However, I had also placed every link in a unified context, which meant that I could swiftly synthesize all this feedback into a functional framework.

    Far more importantly, everyone (for the first time, really) saw their own work in a larger context, and became far more accommodating about additional work when they realized that other departments were being reciprocal in their own efforts to support an optimized system.

    And of course, when I came back with a fully corrected system, I garnered a huge amount of trust and goodwill. This was essential in getting people to accept ongoing modifications as the system evolved.

    The approach was neither 'top-down' nor 'bottom-up'. Rather, it was 'from the inside out'. It started with questions–not commands–and proceeded according to the answers people actually gave. And it gave people total freedom to reconsider their answers once they saw the new context that emerged. Authority was cemented when–up and down the line–people could say 'this is awesome'.

    And it was.

  • desmondpieri

    The best way to learn to lead WITH authority is to learn to lead withOUT authority. And one good way to learn that is to become a product manager. The main characteristic of the product manager job is that you have responsibility for everything, but authority over nothing. If your product is not selling, it's your fault (even though Sales does not work for you.) If your product is not engineered properly, it's your fault (even though Engineering does not work for you.) Etc. I recommend to people coming out of business school that they get a product manager job at a company that has strong, respected product management.

  • Alexandra Levit

    Alex, thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience in-depth. I know it took a lot of time to compose that comment, and I am certain that other Quickbase readers benefited from the real world information.

  • Alexandra Levit

    Desmond, having worked directly with product managers in many previous jobs, I completely agree. They are the unsung heroes, and if you can do this job well, you can do any job well. Thanks for the insight.

  • desmondpieri

    Coincidently, I heard Intuit co-founder Scott Cook speak at a conference last year, and he said that he was once told (but the co-founder or Oracle) that, as CEO, he was not the most important person at Intuit; rather, the product manager was. Scott indicated that his learning this was very important to his success running Intuit.

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