How to Lead When You're Not in Charge


How can you be a leader when you're not in charge?

The opportunity to lead comes with influence, but not necessarily with authority. We often don't realize how much authority or influence we have when we lack a title.

Clay Scroggins, lead pastor at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and author of the book How to Lead When You're Not in Charge, joined us on the Leadercast Podcast to answer that question.

What Does Leading When You're Not in Charge Mean?

As a young student ministry leader fresh out of graduate school, Clay struggled to accomplish his organizational mission under the direction of his bosses. Eventually, he grew to think that if he just had more authority, he could accomplish all he wanted to.

When Clay landed a new role as a location pastor for the North Point family of churches, he thought he had received the means to that end. With his own staff, building and programs, it felt like he had more opportunities to execute his vision. But it wasn't long before he realized that he still answered to a leadership team.

Frustrated and disappointed, Clay felt like a little kid pretending to steer a car-shaped grocery cart toward the candy aisle while the parent actually moves the vehicle in another direction.

“Even though I have more authority now than I ever thought I would have or even wanted to have, I'm still not the senior leader. I'm not the most in charge in our organization. And so sometimes 'no' feels like you're telling me the steering wheel doesn't work," he said.

But he realized the steering wheel does work. It just works through influence, not authority. 

How Can Leaders Make Sure Followers Have Influence?

When you're the boss, it's tempting to use your authority rather than your influence to get things done, but that creates an undesirable workplace. People want to work at an organization where the authority in the room uses influence to cast vision, connect relationally and encourage the team members to make decisions well.

Clay said that active listening and willingness to change are essential to granting their followers influence. When people who are close to the action know their thoughts are taken seriously, it creates a culture where employees believe it. Plus, it gives leaders above them a chance to see what's happening more clearly throughout their organizations.

“Make sure [followers] they know their voice matters and that their voice counts," he said. “Respond to what you're hearing. Make changes based on what people are saying."

"Your influence goes far beyond your position on the org chart.” TWEET

Challenging Up

For people who do not have formal authority, leadership may require influencing the folks above them. How do you initiate a challenge to your superiors?

"Change only comes through challenge," Clay said. "The problem, though, is that when we are challenged … it naturally is going to create an adversarial relationship."

That's why you need a plan before launching into a complicated discussion with your boss. Think through how you want the conversation to go. Ask yourself: What outcomes am I hoping for, and how can I be a part of reaching them?

"I really encourage myself to not just bring problems but to bring solutions," Clay said. Then, you work through it together.

“There's a myth in leadership that says 'When you get to be in charge of more, you'll get to lead more.' That's not necessarily true.” TWEET

How Do We Understand and Tap Into Our Influence?

It's frustrating to feel like you have no influence. But talking to yourself about how much influence you have may gets you to a place where you can push an idea forward.

"The work you do to assess your own influence is so important," Clay said, "because it will create for you the plan that you need on how to lead yourself well."

The easiest way to do that is to ask others. Solicit feedback from the people around you. Use your influence.

This post is based on a Leadercast podcast with Clay Scroggins. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Leadercast.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can find all episodes here.

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