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You’re Not the Boss of Me – 3 Ways to Lead without Authority

You’re Not the Boss of Me – 3 Ways to Lead without Authority

“When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’.” Lao Tzu

Shawn Stratton

© Kay Kim

I had reached my limit with a team member. I had tried everything to integrate him into the team and become a productive team player. His disruptive behaviour had gone on for weeks and was threatening to derail the expedition. I decided the only option left was to remove him from the team but I had no authority to do so.

Chatting with many project managers and team leaders, I am often asked the question “how do you lead with little or no authority”. The quick and easy answer to this potential complex question is “the same way you would lead with authority”. If leadership is performed correctly, little authority should be needed.

Increasingly today, projects and events are undertaken in environments where the leader had little formal authority. Significant portions of project work are done by contributors who work for other managers, often for a different company. Project and event managers have high expectations placed on them, demanding a high level of leadership. They are looked to as the go to person to see a project from beginning to end and have all the right processes, metrics and people in place that will allow for successful completion.

There are many ways to lead when you have little or no authority, here are 3 of them:

(RELATED – Why Teams Truly Succeed or Fail One Relationship at a Time)

Shawn Stratton

1.    Metrics:

“If you don’t measure something, you can’t change it. The process of leadership is one of painting a vision, then saying how you are going to get there, and then measuring whether you are actually getting there. Otherwise, you risk only talking about great things but not accomplishing them.” Mitt Romney

In project management a Metric is a standard of measurement by which the efficiency, progress, performance, productivity, and quality of a deliverable, process, and overall project can be assessed. To effectively lead with little authority, leaders not only need to establish and track metrics, they need to communicate the relevant metrics’ progress to the individual team members at frequent intervals. Without clearly defined limits, the concept of control lacks meaning.

Measuring a few key things on a project and publishing the results can have a powerful effect on your project’s process without you having to say a word. A small set of well-defined project metrics give the project leader a powerful tool for managing project initiation, execution and closure.

2.    What’s In It for Me?

In the book RESULTS – Without Authority, Tom Kendrick states, “Even when a leader’s authority is absolute, ordering people to do something doesn’t make them want to do it. Using command-and-control authority to force people to do things unwillingly leads to resentment and demotivation.”

Today’s most successful project leaders identify opportunities to align the project’s needs with what the individuals want to do, and they assign responsibility for project activities accordingly. At all times, they know each team member is thinking “What’s in it for me” in the back of their mind. Having answers ready for this question will go a long way to maintaining command and control as a leader.

3.    Accountability

“You’re not the boss of me!”

I have found that leaders with little or no authority struggle the most with imposing accountability with their team members. For teams, accountability means the willingness of team members to call their peers on behaviors that might hurt the team’s performance. Team members avoid accountability because of the personal discomfort that comes from calling a peer on his/her behaviors and a more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations. Holding peers accountable means team members must “enter the danger” with one another.

When trying to hold your team accountable, what do you do when your team member gives you that look which screams “you are not the boss of me”? Business management and bestselling author Patrick Lencioni suggests these steps in holding people accountable.

  • Publish goals and standards of behavior. A team increases the likelihood that members will call out one another’s aberrant behaviors when it clearly articulates the behaviors that are destructive to the team’s performance.
  • Regularly review progress against the agreed upon matrices. When a team ensures deviations from plans are identified quickly, they make it more likely that performance issues of team members will be highlighted and addressed.
  • Start meetings using the lightning round. This is when team members quickly review what they are working on. When team members keep one another informed about what they are doing, it gives peers an opportunity to provide feedback and advice before a mistake can occur.

Shawn Stratton Keep in mind you need to invest your time and effort to earn organizational currency with your stakeholders before you can “spend” it. Time isn’t a luxury many project managers can afford, but investing in relationship building will ultimately help you be more productive and generate quicker consensus with project team members, peers in the organization and senior managers.

In my case, the main thing which helped convince my superiors (the ones with the authority) to remove a person from the team was the ongoing and in-depth documentation I kept when dealing them. I hope you never reach a point where removal of a team member is necessary and that you can utilize these tactics to help you lead without authority.

If you do bump in to a roadblock where your authority is being tested and your project is in jeopardy and you need to seek support from the people who hold authority, you need to be able to provide crystal-clear facts to state your case.

The goal of any leader should be to have your team following you not because they have to but because they know, like and trust you. Build on your relationship and you will build your authority.

Action: The next time you encounter resistance from a team member while in a leadership position before reacting to a behavior, ask yourself what is their ‘what’s in it for me’ factor.


Until next week… Embrace the Adventure


Shawn Stratton is an international leadership and team building consultant, professional speaker, bestselling author, Ironman competitor, and expedition guide.

Click here to learn more about how Shawn can help your organization.

© 2016 Shawn Stratton. All rights reserved.