How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge

How to lead when you're not in charge

Do you know how to lead when you’re not in charge? Leading when you’re not the boss is difficult. However, you can be an informal leader in any environment.

Think of it this way. Can you think of a person at work who wasn’t in charge, but people followed what they said? You can either be a good or bad influence when leading your peers, so pay attention.

Here are some things I have used and have worked for me.

Evaluate your character

It’s easy to do the wrong thing when people are not watching. Just like George Orwell’s book 1984, Big Brother is always watching. It may not be a TV or computer screen, but your peers constantly watch your reactions.  Your credibility is critical when leading your peers.

Take an inventory of your character. Are you doing what’s right when no one is watching? Are you cutting corners when you know you shouldn’t? Are you helping your co-workers and making them look good?

For me, I compete with my peers for ratings. Evaluations can be zero-sum, and it’s discouraging when your peer gets a better mark than you do. However, people with good character will reflect on their shortcomings and learn from others. It takes character to ward off envy.

I once sat in an empty office for several weeks while my co-workers were attending a conference. It would have been easy to take advantage of the freedom and go home at noon every day. But I chose to stay and support my new coworkers, many of whom I had never met. It reflected well on me, and I received praise for taking care of the office while everyone trained elsewhere.

Remember, integrity is essential.

How to lead when you're not in charge

Photo by fauxels

Be respectful to your coworkers

We have enough rude behavior right now. Choose respect as your default. You can choose your reactions and your emotions. When you choose respect, you leave communication doors wide open.

I have had coworkers who were notoriously combative in word and deed. Be kind to these people and listen. Showing respect to the most argumentative person at work shows deep concern for the organization’s well-being.

Here’s how I show my respect to people:

-Listening: when your peers or subordinates are talking, listen. Don’t think of a response. Chances are, your retort isn’t as clever as you think, and it may drive a wedge between you and the other person.

-Greet people warmly: I have a warm personality, so this comes naturally. But if you know you’re not the friendly type, think about one good thing and then greet someone with a smile. It goes a long way to remember nice experiences.

-Eye contact: I use eye contact often. It shows connection during the conversation. I make them feel important. I can usually tell when someone isn’t engaged in a conversation when they start looking elsewhere or pull out their phone.

Lastly. Please. If you’re in a conversation, put the phone down. Part of knowing how to lead when you’re not in charge is to act as if you are equal to another. Be courteous. Put the phone down.

Support in public, argue in private

Complaining will cost you credibility in your organization. Poor decisions happen, and complaining doesn’t help anyone, especially yourself. If your status quo is to gripe to your friends about a policy or memo that just came out, I recommend trying a different approach.

Asking good questions for clarification about a grievance shows professionalism. Do this privately. Approach the boss with understanding and a willingness to learn. Remember, your boss is human, too, and is susceptible to emotional outrages like you. Here’s how I would do it:

-Talk about impacts: People like to see numbers and data. Whether qualitative or quantitative, data can support your concerns. How has (said policy) affected the workplace? Is there another way to accomplish the same task without (said policy)?

-Attack the problem, not the person: People take pride in their work. Go into a discussion with a united goal in mind. So, talk about how the offending policy will affect the company. Resorting to personal attacks will only foster hard feelings.

-Have a solution prepared:  If you walk into your boss’s office with a list of gripes without solutions, you won’t be contributing to the answer. Come prepared—present plausible solutions for discussion.

Most of all, do this in private. Then, support the final decision as if it were yours.


Leading when you’re not in charge is one of the hardest things to do in the workplace. Your boss and co-workers rely on you to do your job, but you don’t want to be the brown-noser either. Genuine leadership comes from a desire to serve those around you.

Choose to help your co-workers. It is easier said than done, but how do you want to live at work? Do you want to control your work experience or be controlled? Serving your coworkers will create an aura of leadership that people will recognize.

How do you lead when you don’t have a leadership responsibility? Contribute to the conversation below. Thanks for reading!

If you want a book review for George Orwell’s book 1984, click here.

Photo Credit

Featured Image: CoWomen

Image 1: Fauxels

Image 2: Daria Shevtsova


6 thoughts on “How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge”

  1. I totally love the idea of servant leadership. I suppose it was ingrained in me from at an early age when I had my first job.
    Truly, the supervisors I appreciated the most were very consciencious of their own integrity and actions in front of subordinates. They are the ones that made me want to work harder and feel proud of my accomplishments.

    I can see how your advice on leadership can be applied to every day living at home as well. Being more aware of myself as a mother and the impressions I make on my children (who are always watching)!

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post.

    1. Annie,
      Servant leadership is one of the best things we can use in the workplace. These types of leaders are important for development as well. Thank you for your comment!

  2. It is true that we need to show respect to others while living in this full of rude behaviour system. Thanks for sharing and emphasising on how to show good qualities to co workers and build trust with them.

    1. Gary,
      We do live in a turbulent time with many disagreements. I think the way forward is through honesty and seeing people through a more empathetic light. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Thank you so much for this highly informative article, Robert! I completely agree with you that one can be a leader, even if he/she doesn’t have the official title to match it. I work in the legal field as a legal assistant, and I always try to help my coworkers in any way that I can; we’re a team, we’re all equal (I treat and value everyone equally), we can all learn from one another, and we’re all people with emotions. My boss and coworkers appreciate the informal role that I have taken on-I’m more than happy to answer questions (if I don’t know the answer, I’ll help them to find the answer), and I’m more than just a coworker, but a friend (I’ll talk to anyone about anything). Our workplace morale has skyrocketed, we’re all happier and more productive, and our firm is definitely on an upward swing as a result of it. Great read! God bless you!

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