Leading without Authority

Written by Charlie Efford

A chief executive and a colonel in the army may have very different leadership challenges, but they both have the rank, title or badge of office to back them up. Organisations are usually hierarchical and rely on having a leadership structure to operate effectively. Being in charge and telling people what to do works in these environments, but what happens when the institutional authority isn’t there?

Supposing you were asked to lead a project team drawn from your peer group. Your authority over them is minimal but you are still accountable for the success of the project. This may sound like a poisoned chalice, but it can be a great opportunity to learn about leadership from a very different perspective. I have been in this situation many times and would like to share some of my learning with you.

I realised very quickly that my normal approach to leadership wouldn’t work. My attempts to take charge fell flat and what little authority I had was seriously undermined. I oscillated between subservience to curry favour and exasperation when nothing seemed to be happening. Whenever I tried to get a grip of the situation, I seemed to make things worse.

I then started reading up on group theories and things began to make sense. Jack Gibbs theory of trust formation and group development and Wilfred Bion’s work on group processes helped me the most. There is much to explore and read and I will leave you to do your own studying.

I learnt that:

  • It is important to build trust within the group before starting to engage with the task.
  • Recognising and addressing the processes that swirl beneath the surface of the group is vital if it is to function effectively.

In practice, I listened (rather than talked), asked (rather than told) and facilitated (rather than commanded) Members of the group became engaged as I created the space for them to become engaged. I didn’t need to enthuse people with my vision because they were already invested in the project. When I was open and flexible to new ideas, I got much better outcomes than I could ever have achieved on my own. When I trusted in the collective wisdom of the group, they repaid my faith by delivering abundantly.

Of course things did go wrong too. There were times when my leadership was appreciated a little too much. It felt like I was being put on a pedestal, and whilst this was flattering, I knew that would be deposed fairly soon. (How many senior politicians have you seen fall for this one?). At other times the group would engage with anything apart from the task in hand. Chatting about what was on TV last night was often a subtle signal that the situation was becoming challenging.

My role in these situations was to help the group remain productive. I did this by:

  • Keeping my eyes and ears open to what was going on within the group
  • Recognising when patterns predicted by group theory might be occurring
  • Resisting the temptation to be drawn into group dysfunction
  • Not being afraid to raise awareness and challenge situations when they arose.
  • Not reverting to command and control when things started going wrong

Leading a peer group is invariably difficult and I hope my learning will help you. I also hope that I might challenge those of you who believe that command and control is the only way. There is no reason why my views shouldn’t work just as well in a more conventional leadership setting – perhaps in the boardroom.

Leading without authority puts the onus very firmly on you and the way you lead. Without the rank to back you up – how would you get on?

About the author

Charlie Efford


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