Four ways to act like a leader—regardless of your job title

You don’t need an explicit leadership role to be effective at communicating and aligning the people around you

It’s easy to think you’re not ready—that you need to be further along to be a leader. Maybe next year. Or when you switch companies. Or when you have more time.

One of the biggest limiting beliefs that holds people back from growing in their careers is the belief that just because they’re in an “individual contributor” role; they’re not leaders. That leadership-development courses are only for people already in leadership positions. And that you’re not a leader until someone says you are.

At Co Leadership, we recently let people know about a leadership and communication course—and got a lot of emails with some variation of:

“What if I’m not a leader?”
“Will you have a course for individual contributors?”
“I’m just an individual contributor—would I still get something out of the course?”

The reality is that everyone—yes, even an individual contributor—is a leader, whether we realize it or not. We’re each responsible for influencing and bringing about the changes that we want to see. But when you hold the limiting belief that you’re not a leader, you let that belief dictate your behavior. You might see something that’s not going as well as you like, and think:

Oh, that’s not my job. Someone else will notice and do something about it.”
“I wish our culture/team/code quality/infrastructure were better. It’s not super bad, but it’s not great.”
“Why isn’t someone doing something about this?”

We’re conditioned to exist in a sort of learned helplessness, where we notice things at work that bother us, shrug, and say, “Well, I guess that’s the way it is.” But when we get stuck on those thoughts, we end up taking away our own power and authority. We opt out. Who am I to nominate myself to be a leader?” “Who I am to ask my manager for the budget to take this leadership course when maybe they don’t see me as a leader?”

I’ve worked with, coached, and interviewed many people who have successfully transitioned into the leadership roles of their dreams. And they all hold one thing in common. They’ve replaced their initial limiting belief with a more empowering one: I am the one responsible for the change I want to see.”

This belief empowers them to take action—even if they’re individual contributors or people without explicit leadership roles. Of course, taking action on your own—without the support of others—can be hard and lonely. The single most important way to make it feel easy is to get effective at communicating and aligning the people around you. Once you recognize that, the process is simple.

Document gaps in the organization. When you notice a problem with company policy, process, or other infrastructure, write it down. Then find a partner or a buddy and brainstorm ways to move the issue forward. Or if you’ve identified the gaps in the organization that holds your team back, mention them in a meeting. It’s a powerful experience to throw something out there and watch the whole room react by saying, “Yeah, that is a problem.”

Seek guidance from a mentor. For me, a big shift came when I saw that doing what I’d been doing wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. I was focused on being more reliable, which, as an engineer, meant doing more coding. But the people around me being put in leadership positions weren’t rewarded because they were super good at coding. So I tried to take more initiative, pulling myself out of the day-to-day and coming up with new ideas. But whenever I would propose a new one, it wasn’t aligned with what was actually needed—so it would get shot down. That wasn’t a great feedback loop. Luckily my manager had a sense of what I wanted, and he helped me propose ideas that were useful to the team.

Build alignment early in your process. Have conversations with your peers and your manager, and really listen and discover what’s important to the people around you, so that you can design your work relationships and expectations more explicitly. Take the time to invest in relationships and connect with the people around you, so that when you talk about what needs to get done for work, you already know what’s important to each stakeholder, and aren’t caught off-guard by long-winded arguments about details.

Building alignment lets you communicate with impact—so that what you do and say lands with your audience. It empowers you to lead without authority—so that you know how to motivate people behind shared goals. It’s a powerful tool that can transform a solo endeavor into a team effort that feels like everyone is rowing effortlessly in the same direction.

Volunteer to get involved in areas outside your expertise. We all make assumptions that colleagues might get upset if you do something in their territory, but one of the things we teach is how to clear those assumptions. Tell your colleague that you really want the endeavor to be successful and you want to be involved—but don’t want to step on their toes. I once ran a workshop for an engineering team, where everyone was working on their own project. Many of them wanted to contribute to other projects but thought nobody would welcome their help. Yet when I asked who in the room would welcome help, two-thirds of the hands went up. It was really fascinating to see: Everyone wants more connection, but they’re holding themselves back.

You may be an individual contributor, but no one works in isolation. You may be an engineer-turned-manager who doesn’t quite know if you’ve got your bases covered. You may be a director, or VP, or CTO. At every level, there is a universal feeling of wanting to have impact—and of feeling like you don’t have the authority you need to go for it.  

But leadership takes courage and a willingness to dive into the unknown. And if you are waiting for someone else to recognize you so that then you can step into your leadership, you may be waiting for a long time.

The person you are waiting for is you.

Jean Hsu is a cofounder of Co Leadership and a member at Berkeley’s WeWork 2120 University Ave.

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