How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge

What if you could positively influence your coworkers and boss? Leading when you’re not the boss is difficult. However, you can be an informal leader in any environment. You have to know how to do it.

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 to how you’re leading.

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? The last question is the hardest one in competitive companies.

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 did. However, people with good character will look at that and think about the help they gave to their peers to get them where they are. Your peer’s reaction towards you doesn’t matter, even though it might be hurtful if your co-worker doesn’t recognize you. Swallow your pride and keep working.

A great way to set the tone at work is to help others when they least expect it. Some work environments are hostile, which makes this more difficult. But reaching out to others does a world of good if done with the right intentions.

I once sat in an empty office for several weeks while my co-workers were at an Army staff exercise. I had just moved into that office and didn’t have anyone to show me the ropes. It would have been easy to take advantage of the freedom I had and to go home at noon every day. It turned out that I fielded several issues during that time that required immediate attention. I handled them while most of the office was away. I set my own precedence for the office. People notice the actions that you do, either good or bad.

However, integrity goes a long way, and things happen when you show up.

Be respectful to your co-workers

We have enough rude behavior going on in the world. Choose to be respectful. You can choose your emotions in the workplace and how you react to bad news. When you choose respect, you open communication tunnels between yourself and your co-workers. They’ll see that you want to help.

I have worked with co-workers who are notorious for being combative and competitive at work. It’s even more important to be respectful to these people because we all have the same goal: to improve the organization.

This may be naive to say, what do you have to lose by showing some respect? Here’s how I show my respect:

  1. Listening: when your peers or subordinates are talking, it’s especially difficult not to interrupt them with your own thoughts. However, it’s more important to hear out the issue before passing judgment. You tend to miss more when you’re thinking of a response while your counterpart is speaking.
  2. Greet people warmly: I have a warm personality, so this comes naturally. But if you know you’re not the friendly type, then just think about one good thing and then greet someone with a smile. It goes a long way to remember nice experiences.
  3. Eye contact: I use eye contact with people I talk to. It shows connection and engagement in 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. Please. If you’re in a conversation, 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 you try a different approach.

Asking good questions goes a long way. Why is this rule here in the first place? Why can’t my boss and I have a conversation about it? This is where you go to your manager and express your concerns. Do this professionally. Here’s how I would do it:

  1. 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? Can we amend it? Is there another way to accomplish the same task without (said policy)?
  2. Attack the problem, not the person: we take pride in our work. It’s harder when the policy is your manager’s pet project. But, come in with a united goal in mind. You both want the same thing. So, talk about how the problem policy will affect the company. Do not resort to name-calling and policy bashing. That’ll lead to more hurt feelings.
  3. Have a solution prepared: Synchronize your solution with the root cause of the problem. 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.


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? Helping and serving will help you to lead when you’re not in charge.

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.


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

  1. Annie says:

    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. Robert says:

      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. Gary says:

    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. Robert says:

      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. C.N. says:

    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!

    1. Robert says:


      It’s good to have a comfortable work environment like what you’re describing. Thank you for your comment!


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