Leading without authority

At the recent WeTest 2016 conference (http://www.wetest.co.nz/), I had the opportunity to talk about leading without authority. Many companies are ditching the more traditional, hierarchical team structure in favour of autonomous, flat structures where big sticks of authority no longer exist. This can be a dramatic change for a lot of people in positions of leadership or management. Where previously people often did things because they were told to, in this new structure teams are empowered to say ‘no’ and think for themselves.

Leading without authority can be a massive hurdle for all of us, especially if we’ve never really had to think about who we are as leaders, because our titles gave us everything we needed. I had come from a place where I was familiar with telling people what to do rather than listening to what people needed. Still being a leader but having all the authority taken away was a very steep learning curve for me. Having spent the past 15 years in all types of leadership positions, I wanted to share some of the myths I had busted along the way.

Myth: People are born <leaders>, <successful>, <lucky>

Some of the time we can look at people who have ‘gotten ahead’ of us in some way and think that they don’t deserve it, that they may have gotten lucky in some way. It’s all too easy to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves, thinking that success isn’t something that will happen to us. I’ve been fortunate to have met a lot of successful people in all types of disciplines and they all have something in common. They’ve all worked for it. I feel it’s important to make a distinction here in that I’m referring to the people that are respected in their fields as people in a community as well as an organisation.

When we’re introduced to people who have already achieved success, we’re often only seeing the tip of the iceberg. What we haven’t seen is the hours of dedication, training, self reflection, learning and growing that person has been doing for years before. I can guarantee that they’ve had a few failures of their own but they made the choice to keep trying and move forward. It’s also important to recognise that these people do these things for themselves, not for other people.

People who perform well, usually do so because they have a supportive environment which allows them the time to work at getting better.

They also have the right tools, resources and opportunities to continue moving forward. It’s important to keep this in mind when building teams by asking ourselves if we’re creating the right environment for people to grow and improve. Change the environment and the people will also change.  

Myth: To be a leader, I have to know more and do more than everyone else

Like many people I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. The thought that I was going to be found out in some way, that I didn’t know as much as people thought I knew. In my early 20’s I was given advice from an older colleague, ‘Once you accept that you’ll never know everything and that it’s ok, you’ll be much happier’. Turns out they were right. Being able to say ‘I don’t know but let’s find out’ is rather empowering. This is why we work in teams. To be able to share knowledge and collectively come to better decisions together.

A lot of my time spent in a position of leadership is listening and asking questions. Sometimes people just need a sounding board or a way to gain a different perspective of the issue or problem at hand. The other side of this is that if I know everything and do everything then I don’t give others the opportunity to learn and to grow. I am looking after myself at the expense of other people’s development.

Myth: Extroverts make the best leaders

Over the past few years there has been a shift towards classifying people as being either Introverted or Extroverted. On the face of it, we tend to classify people who speak up at meetings or at conferences, organise events, are good at networking and considered fun and loud as extroverts. Looking into this deeper, it appears this is just another way for us to classify or stereotype people. I believe that everyone is an individual and there are things that every person brings to what they are doing regardless of being introverted, extroverted or ambiverted.

No personality type makes a leader better or worse, instead we should be looking for the skills, qualities, values and behaviours a person exhibits when identifying leaders.

Human’s have an innate ability to do this. Leaders are the people we follow regardless of title. However, when it comes to job descriptions, we sometimes forget this and hire for an ‘outgoing, energetic, fun, enthusiastic person’ to lead our teams. These qualities, while inherently positive, are not always the things that make leaders great.  

Myth: If I fix all the problems people will respect me

This is a thought I believed for quite a while until I had the realisation that I needed to respect myself and my time first. I’ve worked in many offices where 10 hour days were expected and out of hours phone calls or email demanded an immediate response. I once got out of bed at 11 o’clock at night to head down to the office and check something for a senior. Talking about this to other people, I began to realise that this wasn’t healthy behaviour and that I wasn’t doing it because I cared, I did it because I was scared. Reflecting on this event, there was no reason why he couldn’t do it himself, or it could have waited until the following day.

Something happens when you become the person that fixes all the problems. You become the person that fixes all the problems. More and more often, people will continue to push boundaries and ask more of you until something breaks. The biggest lesson I learnt was to say ‘no’ and that I needed to respect myself first.

Myth: The team should do things my way

This is something I see people do quite often after a promotion or joining a new team and I am guilty of it myself. After being in a position where I was unable to make decisions and action my ideas, the excitement of being in a new role where I could make my mark was intoxicating. When joining a new team, I’ve since found the opposite to be more useful. Instead of jumping in, changing things and making a statement, it is better to relax, listen to others, gain trust and then help create an environment where people feel inspired to change.

When someone takes charge and makes decisions in isolation, teams can become apathetic, feeling as though their contribution or opinion isn’t valued.

Coming to the realisation that I am one person with my own thoughts, biases and fears, I can only do so much. Clones of myself really isn’t the best solution to anything. Utilising the creativity of the team by allowing people to do things their own way even if that includes making a mistake will foster a more harmonious team environment. Creating an environment where people feel safe to ask for help and share ideas so the team isn’t limited by their leader starts with giving trust and support to the team.  

Myth: If I had a different <title>, <team>, <workplace> things would be better

When things get hard, it’s easy to pack it all in and walk away. Unfortunately, if we walk away for the wrong reasons and don’t do the work to identify our own contribution to the situation, we can take our problems with us. It can be hard to be honest with ourselves, especially if we have been unkind or difficult in a situation when we had a choice to be kind and compassionate.

There are definitely reasons to want a new title, team or workplace like seeking a new challenge or opportunity to grow. I’ve rarely had success when I’ve made a change to get away from something. If stressful situations that are eerily familiar keep presenting themselves, the best thing to do is reflect and look at what was a common factor. Self reflection is not an easy thing to do and most people avoid it, choosing to deflect or blame something else outside of their control but it is the most valuable tool in my tool box. Being aware of my own contribution to an outcome, both positive and negative, allows me the space to grow and change.

Over the coming years, I’m sure other myths will be busted and I will learn new things about who I am as a person and a leader. I expect that I will change, evolve and grow but for now, my own truths about leadership are:

“It’s not about me”  

“Lead with empathy”

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