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How to Be an Amazing Leader When You Lack Formal Authority

You don’t need a title and a fancy office to have profound leadership influence.

Key points

  • Credibility, trust, and persuasion ability determine who is perceived as a leader.
  • Leadership success is based more on relationship-building and communication style than authority.
  • Lateral leadership thrives in organizational cultures that promote peer autonomy.
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Having a title doesn’t make you an effective leader. Individuals with titles usually have authority, but may lack the credibility and respect needed to persuade individuals to excel. Conversely, not having a title and not being on the top of your company's org chart doesn’t exclude you from influencing the success of your peers and bosses, or even your entire organization. Ultimately, leadership ability is not anointed or determined by title but instead it is earned. Leading without formal authority takes skill, motivation, and strategies and is often referred to as “lateral leadership” by researchers and entrepreneurs (Kühl et al., 2005).

Set the stage

Seminal work by Conger (1988) suggested four necessary foundations for lateral leadership. First, credibility and trust from others is essential. Second, the prospective leader must articulate tangible benefits to others to gain support. Third, the persuasive leader should make memorable appeals that have meaning for constituents. Last, the aspiring leader should show passion in every persuasion effort. While Conger’s factors contribute toward leadership success, they are not all-inclusive or sufficient to be perceived as a leader when lacking authority.

A prerequisite for lateral leadership is establishing a relationship with the people you hope to lead. The value of kinship should not be underestimated. At all costs, lateral leaders must avoid the perception from others that the only reason this person is talking to them is that they want something. The probability that someone will respond favorably to your no-authority request without a prior relationship is akin to approaching someone at a bar for the first time and asking them to marry you… near zero. Instead, first establish a productive relationship with the person or department before attempting any persuasion effort. When it comes to establishing trust, the source of the information (you) trumps the message you hope to convey almost every time (Kim & Dennis, 2019), thus rely on relationship-building as your primary lateral leadership strategy.

Cultivate autonomy in others

The remaining strategies focus on creating work cultures that cultivate individual autonomy. This means the prospective leader should help colleagues feel like they are empowered to make things better regardless of where they are in the company hierarchy. To create an autonomous culture, the persuasion effort must begin with creating conditions where the interests of the other party supersede your own. In essence, this approach means that you should always take the perspective of the person you are hoping to persuade (Reeve & Cheon, 2021). Do not be self-focused and instead imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes and anticipate the reaction of the person you hope to persuade.

Second, think about the intrinsic motivation of your persuasion target. Will your appeal spark interest and passion in the person or does your approach appear to be tedious and unfulfilling? Will the opposing party take ownership for the results achieved (whether positive or negative)? Again, imagine yourself as the other person and ask yourself which of their needs will be satisfied by the proposed partnership. Will they merely see your suggestions as more work or is there a measurable payoff to the partnership? Don’t expect receptivity to ideas when others have nothing to gain. Third, be sure to explain the rationale behind your thinking. While you may take it for granted that the opposing party completely understands your need and request, they may only look at things from a personal perspective.

Mind your language

Next, use invitational language. How (not what) you communicate is where knowledge of emotional intelligence becomes useful to lead others (Alotaibi et al., 2020). We want individuals to acquiesce to our suggestions, but we also want them to be emotionally engaged (and not merely compliant) in their support. Thus, we should probe for how emotionally connected they are to your suggestions. Start with asking questions such as, “How do you feel about this idea or project?” While getting compliance is the goal, enthusiasm and support will garner more effort toward reaching the goal than mere compliance. If there is any doubt expressed, ask questions such as, “So what might we do differently so you won’t feel that way?” The specific words you use are keys to success (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). If you say things like, "We should adopt this plan because it is mutually beneficial,” you may only be addressing your own needs. Instead use words like, “You might want to consider…” or “You might look at it this way…” or “Do you think that….” as a conduit to help the other party recognize the personal benefit of embracing your suggestions.

Be patient

Finally, don’t expect immediate agreement. As my tavern analogy implied, you cannot walk into a social situation, meet the person for the first time, and expect they will accept your marriage proposal. Sometimes we must allow others to contemplate, ruminate, and even procrastinate over a decision. The other person must be comfortable with the agreement and not feel pressured or coerced into deciding. It is perfectly acceptable to ask, “When do you think we can talk about this again?” or “When would be a good time to follow up with you?” Any perceived pressure will likely result in resistance to your ideas, so take it slow to enhance the probability of meeting your lateral leadership goals and promotion potential.


Alotaibi, S.M., Amin, M., & Winterton, J. (2020), Does emotional intelligence and empowering leadership affect psychological empowerment and work engagement? Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 41(8), 971-991.

Conger, J. A. (1998). The necessary art of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 76, 84-97.

Kim, A., & Dennis, A. R. (2019). Says who? The effects of presentation format and source rating on fake news in social media. MIS Quarterly, 43(3): 1025–1039.

Kühl, S., Schnelle, T., & Tillmann, F. J. (2005). Lateral leadership: An organizational approach to change. Journal of Change Management, 5(2), 177-189.

Reeve, J., & Cheon, S. H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice. Educational Psychologist, 56(1), 54-77.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Soenens, B., & Matos, L. (2005). Examining the impact of extrinsic versus intrinsic goal framing and internally controlling versus autonomy-supportive communication style on early adolescents’ academic achievement. Child Development, 76(2), 483–501.

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