Triple Crown Leadership

Triple Crown Leadership

Leading without Authority

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Leadership is a complicated subject. Most everyone recognizes good leadership, but there are many varying definitions of leadership, as well as many different versions of what constitutes good leadership. Unfortunately, most examples of good leadership also cite people who are in positions of authority. Such authority gives people hierarchical power to enforce their views, or entices people under the authority leader to just acquiesce to the leader’s initiatives.

But what happens when you are in an organization where you don’t have authority? How do you lead from below to people above you in the hierarchy? How do you lead among your peers with no authority over them either?

As most good leaders have learned, before you can presume to lead others, you must first lead yourself well. If you don’t master yourself first, others will certainly be reluctant to listen to your leadership initiatives.

For example,

  • If you convey a “know-it-all” attitude, you will likely be resented.
  • If you demean or criticize what others have said, you will risk insulting those you hope to influence.
  • If you are telling others what they should do, you are likely to raise resentment.
  • If you stick doggedly to your ideas, regardless of the feedback it generates, you will likely be viewed as inflexible.

These examples are evidence of excessive ego. Some co-workers will think you are all about yourself, gaining points over them, and advancing your career at their expense. They may attribute your leadership efforts to arrogance, vanity, and self-importance. Such attributes will likely undermine your leadership efforts.

In our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we make the distinction between “head” and “heart.” “Head” qualities consist of your knowledge, skills, and expertise based on your intelligence, education, and experience. Your head qualities are expressed in “what” you say in your leadership efforts. Equally, or even more important than “what” you say, is “how” you say it. How you express your leadership efforts is a reflection of your “heart” qualities. Heart is your character, integrity, will, passion, courage, trustworthiness, and humility. Heart is a reflection of your moral compass.

No matter what you say in your leadership efforts, if how you say it gives the impression of excessive ego, a lack of character, or untrustworthiness, then your leadership efforts are likely to fail.

Without a firm, constructive foundation of your own personal values and purpose in life and your professional work, you will run the risk of being seen as self-centered. We have learned that one of the most essential elements of good leadership is your commitment to serving others, not yourself. It’s called “servant leadership.” Ideally, to lead from below effectively, or to lead your peers, you should truly care for and see the value in others. You should be committed to the values and purpose of your organization. Your leadership attempts should, ideally, be seen as ways to fill their needs, goals, and priorities, not your own selfish motives.

Much of your leadership initiatives will be determined by others from your perceived attitude, which is a reflection of your “emotional intelligence” (EI). Daniel Goleman, one of the original authors on the subject, said EI is: “managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward common goals.” What does your mindset, your voice, your facial and body language project to others? Regardless of the worth of your leadership ideas, these qualities will determine whether your leadership efforts are accepted or rejected.

Here are some lessons we’ve learned to assist you in projecting a constructive attitude to lead without authority:

  • Do you listen carefully before speaking, waiting patiently rather than jumping in too soon?
  • Do you share thoughts and ideas, rather than telling others what they should do?
  • Do you acknowledge and build on the statements of previous speakers, or just ignore what they have said?
  • Have your phrased your ideas as open-ended questions you are wondering about, rather than absolute statements of what must be done?
  • Are you willing to amend your thoughts as others build on them, or show roadblocks you haven’t thought of?
  • Do you show willingness to work on your ideas collaboratively with others, or are you just dumping your ideas out for others to work on while you go back to your own job?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins cites “level 5 leadership” as the highest form of executive leadership. Level 5 leaders have a mixture of professional will about achievement for their organization, mixed with personal humility. Humility is the antidote to excessive ego.

Effectively leading without authority is a learned skill. Learning how to lead without hierarchical authority will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your leadership skills if and when you are given leadership authority over others. The best way to learn to be a good leader is to practice leading. You can start right now being a leader without waiting until you have been granted authority. Best of luck in your efforts.


Bob Vanourek is the former CEO of five companies including two New York Stock Exchange companies. He has served on eleven boards over his career. He is co-author, with Gregg Vanourek, of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a 2013 winner of the International Book Awards (business: general). His latest book is Leadership Wisdom: Lessons from Poetry, Prose, and Curious Verse. Bob has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Trust Across America–Trust Around the World. To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

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