Leadership is an art as much as it is a skill. It’s something that you never really master, but only hope to understand and live out better each and every day. In some ways, it’s kind of like faith.
A few people recently asked me variations of the question, “How do you lead when you’re not in charge?”
The short answer is this: 98% of the way you lead when you’re not in charge is the same as when you are in charge. That percentage is arbitrary so don’t cite that number in any paper.
The longer answer starts by understanding the dynamic between the concepts of Authority and Influence.
Authority Authority basically means that you have a jurisdictional responsibility for a given area. People in authority may or may not have titles. However, the paradox of authority in relation to leadership is that not everyone who has authority is a leader. Conversely, not every leader is in a position of authority.
Influence Influence is your ability to impact something else. Think of influence like the Force from Star Wars, in the sense that it’s intangible. Yet, it can be used to impact others in positive and negative ways (minus levitating large objects or shooting lightning from your fingers—which would be great). Everyone has some measure of influence over something, somewhere. There are few exceptions to this rule.
Here is the key to leading when you’re not in charge: you can be a leader even when you’re not the one in authority by the way you use your influence.
This is an important concept to grasp because, for many people, the concept of leading only happens when you have the title or position. One of the comments I heard from some of my peers in the months leading up to my decision to become an Associate Pastor at Miami Temple (instead of continuing on as Lead Pastor somewhere else) was that I could be potentially derailing or hindering my career by “taking a step back” in serving under another pastor.
In response to this idea, I find a powerful image during a moment happening late in the life of Jesus found in the book of John, chapter 13. The most powerful two verses in this story are found in the very beginning (v.3-4).
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God,*got up from supper, and *laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.
At the very moment Jesus understood all authority had been given to Him, He doesn’t use the power given to zap his enemies and/or bypass the pain of the Cross. He takes off his outer robe, assumes the position of a servant, and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.
Jesus understood that to be the best leader, it was important to lean on the influence you have on others instead of the authority (titles or position) you wield in the quest to compel them into action. It’s also worth noting that Jesus didn’t use his authority to do everything himself. He delegated authority and used his influence to lead others to grow as leaders themselves.
There are positional leaders who abuse their authority via threats, coercion, intimidation, positioning, sabotage, isolation, and a host of other tactics to keep power to themselves, rather than delegate it to those around them.
When leaders hoard their authority and refuse to delegate to others, it actually makes them weaker. John Maxwell describes three reasons why people violate what he calls “the Law of Empowerment”:
1.) A desire for job security – Weak leaders worry that if they help subordinates, they themselves will become dispensable.
2.) Resistance to change – Most people don’t like change. Effective leaders must not only be willing to change, they must become change agents.
3.) Lack of self-worth – Self-conscious people are rarely good leaders. They focus on themselves, worrying about how they look, what others think, and/or whether they are liked. They can’t give power to others because they feel that they have no power themselves.
Now, let’s say you’re in a position where you’re under someone else in the flowchart and want to know how to lead.
Invest in those you work with.You can influence others the most when they know you care for them. People know when you’re using them as a stepping stone to something else. Therefore, be intentional about developing a positive relationship with those over and under you.
At my church, I see my senior pastor as a friend as much as a colleague. We watch movies, laugh, and eat together. Having a positive work environment is great for everyone.
Find your strengths and maximize them. I’m a communicator. I love to write and speak about issues I’m passionate about. Therefore, my senior pastor splits the preaching schedule with me. There are leaders who are threatened by this (see John Maxwell’s notes above), and if you are in a situation like this, don’t sweat it. Find ways to use your strengths in other areas. Furthermore, don’t be upset when you don’t get your way; good leaders are good followers first.
Do everything possible to add value to others.You will become an authority when you have developed enough credibility consistently. Check your motives here, because you must add value to others, not in order to serve yourself. When you produce quality work over time, you will be noticed and maybe you will obtain a title, but if you don’t cultivate that early on, it will be worthless.
Invest in yourself. If you’re in a position where you know your strengths but your work environment is toxic, there is still something you have influence and authority over: yourself. Choose to stay positive, active, and engaged until God opens another door that is in line with your gifts, passion, and experience. A self-differentiated leader can be the most powerful asset any group can have.
In conclusion, bloom where you are planted. I used to think that changing the church could only happen once you “moved up” the ecclesiastic ladder. Today, I firmly believe that working in the local church is where you can have a global impact while avoiding much of the bureaucracy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good people in positional leadership. Personally, I’m choosing to influence my local church and produce leaders that have the culturally relevant, mission-first approach. I’ll use my gifts and authority to produce materials that can positively impact the global church. You can start building that ideal future today.
Like a friend of mine told me recently in relation to speaking truth to power when in the position to do so:
One thing I do know, a lot of people played it safe thinking when they got power then they would speak up, but they found that when they got power they hadn’t developed the character to speak up. Whatever you are doing today is the best predictor of what you will be doing tomorrow.