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Teaching teams and colleagues to lead without authority

Art Petty explains the "leading without authority" leadership model and explains how releasing the reins and empowering others can lead to success.

7 min read


Petty leading without authority

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The idea of empowering individuals and teams to lead without authority is popular and compelling in our era of distributed and virtual work teams and constant, often disruptive change. The logic of flatter organizational structures and decision-making closer to customers is unassailable in our environment. In his thought-provoking book of the same name, “Leading Without Authority,” Keith Ferrazzi quotes Farmers Group CEO Jeff Dailey: “The idea that every employee in an organization must lead without authority is one of the most exciting and challenging realities in American business today.”

Aside from the reality that empowering individuals closer to customers and markets to make decisions is a global, not just American, issue, I share Dailey’s enthusiasm. Cultivating a culture where individuals and work teams can sense, align, execute and renew without fighting through layers of bureaucracy and management is potentially powerful. Yet, bringing these lofty ideas to life and promoting a culture where people are comfortable with and rewarded for taking the initiative to lead when the situation demands it is easier said than done. Here are some issues and ideas to consider: 

It’s easy to misfire

Many, including myself, in senior leadership roles, came of age in an era where command-and-control was the dominant leadership model. Someone was always in charge, and individuals took direction from people in positions of power. Empowering individuals or convincing individuals that they are empowered is challenging unless they have models to draw upon and incorporate into their actions. Never forget with this endeavor that you are attempting to rewire individual and organizational DNA. 

Examples help

As my career developed in technology and software, I experienced the power of self-directed work teams and how learning and innovation would prosper the more teams were supported but not directed or led by senior leaders. The lessons were powerful, and it was thanks to strong leaders supporting us while empowering us that people learned to lead without the titles. It was common to see individuals step up in situations where their skills and know-how were critical and then step back and defer to others when the problem called for different leadership skills. Leadership became fluid.

A few years ago, Cisco experimented with a councils-and-boards approach intended to distribute decisions for investment and execution. Effectively, the firm attempted to push leadership and decision-making away from top management to the working groups. Yet, the system was ultimately dismantled when it became clear that the firm had not reinvented an innovative organizational approach but instead attempted to impose a new structure on top of the old one. It’s a great cautionary tale for any management team striving to make leading without authority the dominant model in their culture.

Senior leaders’ role and focus must evolve

In my view of spreading leading without authority across our organizations, senior leaders still play a role — just one they’re not as familiar with during their careers. Instead of consolidating power in their respective functions, senior leaders are responsible for keeping the firm’s reason for being front and center while breaking down silos and supporting teams to move at the speed of change. Effectively, senior leaders are critical systems integrators. 

One of the vexing dilemmas in this leading without authority culture is determining direction — the highest levels of strategy. I struggle to let go of senior leadership’s responsibility for providing the compass settings on a direction. Senior leaders don’t own getting there, but someone or some group must point in a direction and provide the guide rails. As teams engage in target areas, a feedback loop is vital to help refine the compass settings as the teams uncover rich opportunities to serve clients. The concept of the commander’s intent from the military might be a useful model here. 

Training and coaching are essential

We’ve hardwired top-down leadership into most of our organizations, and it’s a model people relate to even if they don’t love their firm’s flavor of it. You won’t simply mandate a shift to a “lead without authority” style. Frankly, people won’t get it and will be disoriented. Empowering people to act (lead) when their skills and abilities or ideas demand it isn’t something that happens without training and coaching.

In Ferrazzi’s book, the emphasis is on his concept of co-elevation, where individuals focus on building “candid trusting relationships based on mutual accountability within teams.” Effectively, individuals invest their energy in meeting people on their terms and working hard on building relationships where there might have been barriers. The goal is to move past misperceptions and prior bad encounters and find a way to break down silos and personal walls. This is a fundamental operating system change for individual behaviors in our organizations, and it doesn’t happen without ample reinforcement. 

I love the idea of co-elevation and have seen some excellent practitioners of the concept. In cases I’ve observed individuals applying this approach, the individuals unselfishly worked with others to find ways to gain their trust, create value for them and then tap into their knowledge. Yet, these individuals were naturally thoughtful networkers, long on empathy and armed with a passion for serving. Their approach allowed them to gain support and work through what usually would have been big stumbling blocks to change or innovation. Effectively, these individuals led without authority.

Not everyone is wired this way.

Success in the lead-without-authority model demands significant behavior changes at the individual and group levels. It won’t happen unless we help people see the benefits of rewiring how they operate in their organizations and reinforce the changes through coaching and robust feedback. My counsel is to start slow, publicize and reward examples in real-time, and find ways to foster models of decentralized leadership with teams and groups.

Use gray-zone leadership as starting point

The essence of what I describe as gray-zone leadership is uncovering problems that cross organizational boundaries (gray zones) and raising a coalition to fix them. One practitioner of this leadership style offers a great example: 

Dave doesn’t see organizational boundaries in his endeavors. He works tirelessly to grow his network and engage with individuals in other areas. He helps connect individuals from different roles and groups to combine and solve problems where possible and relevant. And he is adept at spotting cross-boundary challenges that demand a coalition approach. 

Participants in Dave’s initiatives enjoy the chance to connect and contribute, and everyone is thankful for Dave’s approach of providing ample visibility to all of the team members involved. As one participant offered, “Working on one of Dave’s initiatives is a great way to gain experience and gain visibility from many people who can help me in the future.”

Feedback and coaching are key

In my experience, encouraging team members to lead without authority makes for interesting discussions, but the concept is abstract and challenging for individuals to bring to life. Training helps, but coaching is vital. Robust feedback is essential to help individuals refine behaviors and move beyond the sticky obstacles and politics people present in different situations. Without this commitment and support, the idea of leading without authority fades from the culture like so many other flavor-of-the-month initiatives. 

The bottom line

Learning to lead without authority for individuals is a journey of exploration and experimentation driven by a desire to help others and help the firm. Succeeding with this at scale is a cause worth investing in if you are interested in surviving and thriving in this era. Yet, please don’t discount the difficulties you will encounter as you strive to help individuals take charge when and where it matters. Rewiring the rules of work and working together is a nontrivial challenge.

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. You can visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles at his website.  


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