How to Lead When You’re Not the Boss

Last week, author, speaker and pastor Clay Scroggins presented a webinar called How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge as a precursor to his new book that is releasing this fall.

As a young professional, this idea of leading when you’re not the leader is really appealing. I’ve heard about the concept of “leading up,” but it’s always at odds with the idea of “staying in your lane.” With so much information at our fingertips on how to be a good employee, it can be hard to learn to lead before you’re the leader that everyone is counting on. But as we know, good leadership has to exist at every level of an organization for it to meet its potential. 

The entire two-hour webinar is extremely helpful and well done—I highly recommend you watch the recording if you can, and you can bet I’ll be reading Clay’s book when it comes out in the fall! Among all of the great teaching, there were three sentences that stood out for me. 

1. “Stop thinking like an employee; start thinking like an owner.“ 

This was one of the first questions our CEO Duane Cummings asked me when we met on his first day: “If you were the owner of Leadercast, what would you do?” I was surprised by the question. No one had asked me that before, and I hadn’t put my opinions about any of the places I’d worked into those terms. But here’s the truth about this idea of thinking like an owner: when you feel ownership of something, you will automatically be more inclined to work harder and make that thing better. If you’re just showing up to work each day, completing a list of tasks and checking off boxes because somebody told you to, that’s not leading. That’s just doing what’s silently required of you because that’s what society says is supposed to happen. But ownership…ownership demands responsibility. It requires you to claim the product or brand or organizational mission as your own so that you do not allow it to fail. And along the way, your voice will be valued because your opinions and solutions will naturally be more holistic and strategic. 

2. “Stop stacking meetings; start scheduling time to think.” 

No matter your role in your organization, chances are you go to meetings—LOTS of meetings. And meetings are important! Communication, information transfer, team camaraderie…meetings matter and make a difference for teams. But meetings go awry when there are so many of them that your brain never gets a break. The temptation is to put all five of the meetings you have on any given day in direct succession – one right after the other all morning long so that you have your whole afternoon to focus on your work. But Clay (supported by many studies) suggests that by stacking your meetings, you make yourself less likely to contribute. Create time in between meetings and throughout your day to let your brain breathe and process what you’ve discussed. That way in your fifth meeting, you’ll be able to have a fresh take on the problems you’re trying to solve instead of being stuck on the conversation in your second meeting of the day. The more that you can actively contribute (especially with that ownership mindset), the more your leadership will be developed and recognized. 

3. “Stop being critical; start thinking critically.”  

This one really caught my attention. It’s easy to be critical of our leaders. Be honest with yourself: how many times have you caught yourself starting a sentence with, “I just can’t believe they decided…” or “Why on earth would they…” It’s easy to criticize and judge the choices the boss is making because you may not be in the room when the decisions are being made. Being critical doesn’t actually change anything though. In fact, criticizing just becomes toxic, even if you’re keeping your criticisms to yourself. Those judgments will either become toxic to your colleagues if you’re sharing what you think, or they become toxic to your own view of your organization’s leadership. 
Along with making an effort not to be critical is ridding ourselves of ‘they’ language. As soon as I say, “I can’t believe they decided…” I have separated myself from the organization. I have abdicated ownership of what’s happening at my place of work. ‘They’ implies blame, while ‘we’ implies trust and unity, even if (and especially when) you weren’t in the room for the decision. Your currency in leadership is your influence, and it gets compromised every time you undermine your boss with criticism without a solution. As Clay said in the webinar, “you have the ability to influence someone by being the wind in the sail of your boss.” 
Thinking critically comes back to an ownership mentality. How can you bring solutions to the table and use your voice effectively to make (or at least present) the changes you think need to be made? 

One of the biggest things this webinar reminded me of is that being in charge and being a leader are not the same thing. Leading from where you are is possible and necessary for an organization to realize its full potential. And if you were the owner, wouldn’t you want the organization to be the best it could be?

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Natalie Dupuis

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