How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge

I love Andy Stanley’s leadership podcast series, and I recently listened to the two-part podcast titled “How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge.” Andy invited a colleague, Clay Scroggins, on the podcast to guide listeners through four big ideas of leading when you are not the point person at the top of an organization.

Working in a school, I feel that every person working in my organization has the potential to be a leader, especially in the way that Andy Stanley defines leadership: as influence. No matter where someone is in our organization – first year teacher, veteran, administrator – we all have equal opportunity to maximize our influence.

Clay encourages leaders who are not in charge to first ‘lead themselves well’ rather than waiting to be led. I understood this to mean be the exemplar, modeling the behavior and culture that you expect from your teammates. Clay also talked about being a good follower, which sounds counterintuitive at first, but a star follower helps his/her leaders achieve what they are trying to achieve. Star leaders do the same for their followers, helping them achieve their goals. It’s more about the team’s interests than individual interests.

Second, leaders who are not in charge choose positivity. This is pretty easy for me – I can find the bright spot in just about anything. Choosing positivity doesn’t just mean being blindly optimistic though (more on that in the third point). I think it also goes beyond being a raving fan publicly and honest critic privately. Instead, choosing positivity means putting ‘we before me.’ I love that quote. I think the bigger and more complex an organization (or school) becomes, it is increasingly more difficult to manage the needs of individuals, smaller teams, AND the entire organization as a whole. Sometimes the needs of those three groups are in opposition. Therefore, leaders must keep the greater good in mind and do their best to create unity, rather than division, across the organization.

Personally, being positive is easy. What’s harder is to not be the ‘rainbow puking unicorn’ that Clay described (I think this is the article he was referencing, asking if millennials are rainbow-puking unicorns or painfully misunderstood optimists). Leaders are tasked to think critically, which falls in between blind optimism and toxically negative on the the spectrum of mindsets/outlooks on life. Thinking critically means seeking and offering genuine feedback, because we grow and improve through criticism. Additionally, leaders act like owners, not just employees. The example of Andy Stanley picking up trash at his church in between services really stands out to me. What if everyone in an organization acted like they owned it, taking pride in the culture and the space it occupies?

Along the same lines, instead of grading the faults in the organization, leaders serve and support teammates. In the gap between expectation and experience, they go directly to the person who has not met expectations and ask, kindly, How can I help? Instead of blaming, leaders work towards a solution. At a previous school, it was a norm that no one could approach our principal with a problem unless we also had three ideas for a solution. What a great cultural expectation, both minimizing complaints and encouraging active critical thinking/solution seeking.

Finally, the fourth point is that leaders reject passivity, not waiting for others to get their act together before moving towards action. I completely understand the idea of acting like an owner rather than an employee and taking an active positive role in the organization. However, I’m not sure I understood or agreed with completely is Andy’s negative interpretation of people who say to their leaders and teammates, “Let me know what I can do to help.” I don’t think that all people who offer that phrase are passive… although now that I think about it, I suppose there is a contrast between saying “Tell me how I can help you” and offering some ideas for a solution (thinking critically). Where I struggle is that I am constantly learning more about how to navigate relationships and situations, so I don’t always readily know how to jump in and help my leaders/teammates. I am more than willing to help, but sometimes I do need them to give me specific guidance on how I can support. Andy also seemed to have the impression that people who say “Let me know what I can do to help” don’t have enough work to do on their own, or that sometimes they’re not even doing their own work well. I just don’t see that. I often hear our team members say to one another “let me know how I can help,” and NONE of us are short on work to do. Maybe we have an unusually unique team? I feel surrounded by people who would genuinely and willingly stop, or at least pause, to help a colleague with a problem.

Leadership is influence, and it’s an empowering idea that each person in an organization has the opportunity to influence others, no matter where he or she falls in an organization.

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