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Here are the habits of employees who lead without the title

Your organization likely has great leaders, doing great work, despite not have the formal authority or title. How can you recogize and elevate these leaders?

6 min read


Here are the habits of employees who lead without the title


In the 2004 movie “National Treasure” with Nicolas Cage and a bevy of other stars, Cage’s character discovers a set of multi-colored spectacles (eyeglasses) essential to decoding a hidden message on the back of the Declaration of Independence. As the wearer tunes the different color lenses, the message suddenly appears, offering clues to a hidden treasure.

While we are unlikely to come across a similar set of spectacles that help us uncover the hidden treasure in our organizations, it turns out the treasure is hiding in plain sight. If you squint a little and look off of the organization chart, you’ll see a small group of individuals leading without the benefit of title or formal authority. They’re busy driving collaboration, cross-silo problem-solving, innovation and strategy execution.

In this article, I share five habits of these influential, informal leaders. They merit studying.

The 5 great habits of those who lead and succeed without the title

Habit No. 1: Trust building

Less a tactic and more a way-of-life, individuals lacking the authority conferred by title and budget trade in one currency: trust. In studying these informal leaders, I’ve observed a tendency for them to give their trust first based on the visible evidence and use the direct experience to confirm or refute this early assessment. Effectively, they practice “swift trust.”

Consider the project team leader with access to a contributor known to them only by reputation. The contributor’s reputation is enough for them to confer trust, versus the human tendency to wait until trust is earned. This new relationship kicks off with “I trust you” as the foundation, reducing the time-to-results. (Note: if you want to minimize the time-to-results, shrink the time-to-trust in your relationships.) People respond remarkably well to the perception they are trusted and move mountains to repay this simple, powerful gesture.

Our off-the-books leader sows trust far and wide. While occasionally the trust is violated, this is an exception handled based on the facts at that time. Ultimately, the practice of swift trust promotes the rapid development of strong relationships — a key for anyone striving to get work done through and with others.

Habit No. 2: Reciprocity management

The most straightforward tactic for building a supportive network involves a fundamental law of human psychology: reciprocity. Research supports the thesis that if you do someone a favor, they’re likely to repay it.

Individuals who wield informal power to get things done are masters at creating reciprocity debts with many — less by an overt attempt at manipulation and more out of the desire to help others genuinely. Backed by solid and trusting networks, these informal leaders offer support and access to information and resources to their colleagues. They create reciprocity debts simply by being helpful.

When the time comes to collect on this debt, people respond, eager to repay the favor.

Habit No. 3: Boundary spanning

Perhaps my favorite behavior of those who lead without authority is their ability to cultivate strong networks across formal organizational boundaries. These individuals are ambassadors of cross-silo relationship development and collaboration. Unencumbered by the false belief that one function is more important than another, they roam far and wide to pursue solutions to problems. Along the way, they gain insights and exposure to the approaches and challenges of others.

Effectively, boundary spanners are practicing healthy network development. They gain context for the realities, resources and challenges in other areas and access valuable information and individuals with specialized skills. These boundary-spanning individuals can see a bigger picture than most, including spotting opportunities and bringing the right resources to bear to solve a particularly vexing problem.

This latter point is the basis of our fourth habit.

Habit No. 4: Coalition building

Consider the first three habits of individuals who lead without authority: trust-building, reciprocity management and boundary spanning. These habits give life to the ability of these individuals to bring the right resources to bear to solve problems or execute important projects.

Armed with the insights gained from cultivating a broad network and backed by relationships founded on trust and reciprocity, there are no better resources to build working coalitions. No executive mandate or quickly pieced-together committee can rival the coalition-building power of these informal leaders. They know who to go to and how to engage and involve the right people at the right time to generate successful outcomes. And they do it without the fiat currency of title or the command approach present in so many of our organizational structures. This is leadership for this era!

Habit No. 5: Gray-zone leadership

The X factor for individuals who lead successfully between the lines and across boundaries is their unique ability to see the opportunities or problems others are blind to or, at least, ignore. I reference these as gray-zone issues.

Gray-zone challenges exist in every organization all the time, typically outside the responsibilities of any single individual or group. They live between the lines of the organizational chart, waiting for someone to stand up and deal with them. Gray-zone leaders grow adept at spotting these issues and apply their ample resources — the output  of the prior four habits — to solve the problems.

One gray-zone leader I admire proved so adept at this practice that he quickly garnered the trust of senior leaders and moved rapidly from a mid-level contributor to the person regularly tapped to lead significant transformation efforts. One of his not-so-secret keys to success was his ability to shine the spotlight brightly on those helping him generate success, amplifying the trust and reciprocity effects described above.

Your opportunity as a contributor: Adopt these 5 habits

There’s little doubt in my mind the practices or habits as I describe them are spot-on the right tools for success in our organizations today. Now more than ever, leadership isn’t power conferred by title but rather by the professional equity garnered through creating value through respect, trust, support and the ability to get the right things done through and with others.

Adopt and employ these five habits, and they will serve you and your teams well.

Your opportunity as an organization leader: Teach and reinforce these habits

While you don’t have the secret spectacles used by Cage in “National Treasure” to bring the hidden message into focus, you can tap into the true hidden treasure in your organization: the creative power and energy of your people. Step back, take your eyes off of the organization chart and the individuals with formal titles, squint if necessary, and start to see how work gets done and who makes it happen. And then go long promoting these individuals and helping others learn their behaviors.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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