We increasingly encounter organisations with a matrix structure, where people may be working in several different project teams, sometimes leading, sometimes not. Known as leading without authority, it is often the case that a person is required to lead others who are senior to them in the organisation, or those over whom they have no direct line management responsibility. As a result, we are frequently asked: how do you successfully lead your boss, or someone who doesn’t report to you? What is the secret to leading without authority?

Conducting the orchestra

One of my favourite analogies to use when discussing leading without authority is that of the conductor of an orchestra. This is in part due to the deeply memorable experience I had of seeing the great Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, speak on leadership in 2016. He talked about his role within his organisation and how he seeks to bring out the best in his musicians.

Despite being an accomplished instrumentalist himself, he knows that his ability is no match for the members of his orchestra, so he doesn’t tell them how to play their instruments. He is not their boss and he knows that they have skills that he can never possess. But he needs them to follow him, to allow him to lead them, for the performance to work.

So, rather than instructing them, he tells them the story of the piece they are going to play. He explains the characters, the narrative journey, and then asks the musicians to take on the roles and bring out the characters’ emotions as they play. He aims to inspire them, to enthuse them with his passion for the piece, and give each of them the space to bring their own unique talents to the performance.

Unity of purpose

It is this ability to coalesce a group of people around a purpose that is the secret to leading without authority. By inspiring others to join you in your mission, hierarchy is set aside and each person can see themselves and their role in the story you’re telling.

As we always say, it is a leader’s role to explain the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ but they should leave the ‘how’ to the team. In understanding this crucial difference between instruction and direction – which Benjamin Zander demonstrates so skilfully – leaders can bring out the very best in those around them.

Creating change

The quality of the explanation, the story a leader tells, is equally important too, since communication relies upon clarity: just as ambiguity is the enemy of change, so clarity is its catalyst. In an ideal world, to be sure that the team really ‘gets it’, they should be able to tell the story back to the leader. When this happens, when they take the story on as their own, change is inevitable.

As this excellent article observes, leading without authority is, to some degree, about ‘selling’ yourself and your ideas to your team. When taking on a leadership role without the scaffolding of hierarchy to support you, you need to reinforce your position through your behaviour.

Remember core principles

As such, when leading without authority, it’s even more important to remember the core leadership principles of LEAD(Listening, Energy, Authenticity, Direction).

  • Listening

As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand.” Listening is the key to framing your story correctly so it will enthuse your team, and will also help you pick up on any issues that need addressing.

  • Energy

Tuning in to the energy of those around you is vital, as well as keeping an eye on your own. Ensure that the key people in your team are engaged and work to maintain their interest. Remember, anyone leading without authority needs acolytes.

  • Authenticity

If you’ve been chosen to lead, even without authority, it means your abilities have been recognised. Be true to yourself, show your passion, and your team will respond positively.

  • Direction

Don’t make the mistake of using control as a substitute for authority. Set the direction clearly and leave your team to determine the ‘how’. Even when obstacles arise, if there is a sense of shared endeavour and intrinsic trust they can be overcome together.

Leading without authority is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of leadership to master, but is increasingly required in today’s matrix organisations. If you need our support, please just ask.

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