Leading when you’re not the boss

Developing leadership qualities is vital for anyone who wants to create a successful and enjoyable career.

It’s a myth that leaders are born not made; leadership skills can be learnt. Nor is it essential to be in a position of authority to influence people positively. Leadership is about mobilising others towards a common purpose, and in fact it can be easier to practise good leadership skills when you’re not in charge because you’re not weighed down with the responsibility of direct reports.

So for the aspiring leader who wants to be influential both in the office and in the wider world, what key things can you do from whichever starting position you find yourself in?

Take on projects

“No one started out as the boss – all good leaders have learned how to get where they are today,” says Paul Stevenson, MD of advertising agency Wall to Wall Sunshine. “Make yourself the kind of person who offers to take on schemes, projects and events. There’s always something happening that perhaps more senior members of staff don’t want to do. If you say yes to this kind of thing, you can build a reputation and get leadership examples on your CV.”

Understand the culture

“Familiarise yourself with your company’s management styles,” says trainer and practice assessor Fi McDonald. “If they are visual people who express things in terms of imagery, you can adopt this. Some people are more auditory, or technical. Build rapport by mirroring that and using the language types they use.” This advice is also useful when your improving leadership skills get you an interview for a new job or a promotion. “Research the organisation and you’ll often see key words that get used frequently. Using those words too will show that you fit with the culture.”

Know where your strengths lie

“What makes a good leader?” asks Charlotte Whitehead, a careers consultant for PhD students and qualified professionals. “They all recognise what their strengths and weaknesses are. An ability to be objective about yourself is highly useful; it means leaders can identify the right people to work with, to complement their own strengths.” Recognising that you can’t be good at everything is a trait of strong leaders. “People need four things from a leader: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Those who transmit these qualities make good leaders.”

Manage relationships effectively

It’s the manager’s job to pull the team together, listen to them and make decisions that result in the right outcomes; but you can influence this if you have effective dialogue with colleagues and the boss. To achieve this, work on your negotiation skills. If you’re concerned about demonstrating leadership skills with older colleagues, remember that negotiation “enables the team to work effectively together and helps establish your respective roles,” says Whitehead.

Work on your people skills

“Have a sense of humour,” Fi McDonald says. “Be able to get on with people easily. Don’t take everything too seriously, but don’t be flippant either. Find ways of avoiding conflict. Try to find points of common ground with fellow employees.” Team players invariably succeed more than lone wolves, because we instinctively work better with people we like. If you’re naturally shy or reticent, you can develop these skills; don’t feel that you can’t change things.

Look at the people you admire

Model yourself on the people you admire. Read about people you might learn from, suggests McDonald. “Study how your own leadership models conduct themselves and how they communicate. In difficult situations, think about how your leadership models might react, and try to do the same.”

Have an X Factor

What makes you special? What’s your USP (Unique Selling Point?) Try to identify qualities in yourself that set you apart from your peers, that you can showcase in your work. That might be the ability to stay calm in stressful situations, for example, or being recognised as someone who can think creatively out of the box.

Be positive

“Go to your boss with solutions, not problems,” says McDonald. “A positive outlook will invariably help advance your career – say yes to things.” The caveat is to know, however, when to say no. “Don’t say yes blindly; be authentic.” Learn how to handle the external environment – this involves managing stress and managing time. Good leaders recognise that there are few inherently stressful situations – it’s how we react to them. Be someone who considers situations carefully, thinks through the impact of decisions and avoids kneejerk reactions.

Be persistent

Being in a junior position doesn’t mean you’re unable to influence those around you. “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room,” says Paul Stevenson, quoting a line often attributed to the Dalai Lama. Whilst you will want to make positive changes, and not be an irritant like the mosquito, the analogy is helpful – as is Winston Churchill’s line: “I might be a worm, but I try to be a glow-worm.”

Present yourself well

A good leader always looks like a good leader. “Think about your body language when you’re around the people you want to influence,” McDonald says. “Focus on how you hold yourself, how you stand. We do lots of things when we’re nervous, so work on limiting these: hunching shoulders, for example, or ‘umming’ in your conversation.” You can train yourself out of verbal or physical tics. If they’re a problem, book yourself onto a public speaking course. Your company might pay for this – they’ll see you as someone willing to go on training, which enhances your prospects in the office. “And dress smartly. People judge you on first impressions – get your appearance right, and you won’t fall at this easy first hurdle.”

Finally, be prepared to work hard. “If you want an easy life, you’re probably not leadership material,” says Paul Stevenson. “You’ve got to be competitive and ambitious. But if you have those qualities, in combination with a strong work ethic and an ability to get on well with people – you’ll do well.”

Photo: AAT student Yalda Nabi is a trainee accountant at Cyber Duck, an award-winning digital agency, overseeing the company cash flow, payroll and helping forecast company expenditure.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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