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  • Writer's pictureDonna Richardson, CEC, ACC

4 strategies for leading without authority

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like Zulema or Anders?

When I first met Zulema, she felt she wasn’t being taken seriously in her leadership role with a global organization. She believed she had more to offer, but since she didn’t have a seat at the senior leadership table, she wasn’t sure how to be heard and get her ideas across. Even though her formal authority was limited, Zulema (an alias) wanted to work on increasing her influence.

As part of his role at a university, Anders led a council comprised of external stakeholders who provided advice on a variety of matters—some tactical, others strategic—and who also helped implement programs and activities. When I started coaching him, he wanted to figure out how to manage these volunteers. By the time we finished, Anders (an alias) had begun to see the council members as partners and collaborators.

Leading without authority is common

If you find you need to lead when you lack authority, you’re not alone. This issue is a common theme in my coaching conversations. From one client who took a job in a new organization to another who was leading a cross-functional team in a matrix structure, to a third who needed support across the organization to successfully implement a new database, leaders are challenged to gain support for initiatives.

Clearly, these challenges are common among leaders. A Google search for “leading without authority” yielded more than 700 million results.

So, how is a leader to gain support for an idea, willing cooperation on an initiative, or agreement on expenditures when they are without authority?

That’s where influence comes into play.

The role of influence

In today’s workplace, whether you are an emerging leader or someone in a senior leadership position, a “command and control” style of leading is no longer relevant. According to Harvard Business Review, “Command and control management is on its way out, and bosses who practice empathy and make an effort to connect with their subordinates are in.”

If you’re trying to motivate others, gain cooperation and get results, regardless of whether you have formal authority, the importance of so-called “soft skills” cannot be underestimated. Strong emotional intelligence—the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and recognize and influence the emotions of those around you—plays a big role in a leader’s ability to have influence.

“Leaders who excel in social awareness practice empathy. They strive to understand their colleagues’ feelings and perspectives, which enables them to communicate and collaborate more effectively with their peers,” notes Harvard Business School Online.

4 strategies to enhance your influence

Leadership is a journey where you’re often faced with new people, challenges and situations. Knowing the importance of having influence and taking steps to develop yours will help you accelerate your growth and get results.

Here are four strategies to help you.

Know the sources of influence and assess yourself

According to researchers John French and Bertram Raven, there are six bases of power. Besides having influence that comes with the position you hold, known as legitimate or positional power, you may have other types of influence.

For example, if you were hired because of specific expertise or skills, you may have expert power that contributes to your influence. Or, you may have referent power if others admire, respect or trust you.

What are your sources of influence and how can you tap into them?

Build relationships

Let’s face it; rarely can we accomplish things at work completely on our own. Today’s leaders are more effective when they collaborate successfully and lead teams well.

Here are some basic tips on building relationships:

  • Genuinely care about people – they’ll know it when you do and they will remember you for it.

  • Listen with empathy – When you listen with empathy, you build trust and understanding of the other person, their interests and motivations.

  • Give first and take later – This is important, particularly if you are new to a position or organization, and contributes to trust-building.

What is one step you can take today to build a relationship with a colleague?

Think win-win

When you take time to know and understand your colleagues, you’re in a better position to authentically frame an issue in a way that benefits them.

When you’re thinking win-win, you might:

  • include people in decisions.

  • give people what they want or need.

  • focus on helping them achieve their goals.

How might thinking “win-win” enhance your influence with someone at work?

Be trustworthy

People tend to follow others whom they trust. Two broad factors that influence trust in a leader are character and competence. Character is who we are; competence is what we do.

Character involves such things as:

  • connection – being able to connect well with others.

  • transparency – whether you are authentic and forthright.

  • intent – having positive intentions.

  • respect – demonstrating respect for yourself and others.

  • integrity – being consistent, functioning in alignment to values.

When others judge your competence, they may consider your:

  • capability – handling the work you are charged with.

  • commitment – being committed to the organization, project, people.

  • accountability – holding yourself and others accountable.

  • performance – performing consistently and at a high standard.

  • results – producing a consistent quality of work.

How would your colleagues assess your character and competence?

Map a strategy

I believe fundamentally that you can lead from where you stand, whether you possess ascribed authority or earned authority. If increasing your influence is something you want to work towards, I invite you to be intentional and map a strategy.

Building trust, enhancing your influence and having an impact all take time. Trust the process.

If you started today, what is the first step you would take to map a strategy? If you're curious about the value that could come from working together as you develop a strategy, then let’s talk.


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