How to be a Leader When You're Not the Boss

It’s important to keep your leadership skills sharp even when you don’t have an official “boss” title (yet). You’re likely to go back and forth between management and non-management positions throughout your career and leadership is important for both. The great news is that leadership is not synonymous with being in charge! In fact, when you’re not the boss, you have the freedom to practice your leadership skills without the pressure of being responsible for direct reports.


You don’t have to be in a position of authority to positively influence those around you, so here are a few ways to lead from right where you are.


Seek out “mini-mentoring” opportunities. 

Mentoring gets a lot of attention when people talk about leadership, but you don’t have to rely on a formal mentoring structure to be one. Sometimes the best way to demonstrate leadership is by (gently) reaching out to colleagues on specific activities where they would benefit from guidance. If you know that a new colleague is giving their first presentation and they’re anxious about it, offer to meet them in a conference room for quick run-through. Don’t wait for someone to slap a label on the ways you can serve—these types of micro-mentoring opportunities are all around you.


Develop informal leadership.

Developing informal authority is a great way to leverage your expertise and become the go-to on any given topic. Can you whip up dazzling pivot tables in Excel? Did you study European history and now your company is considering expanding in the EU market? Offer to hold an informal lunchtime presentation, share information through your company’s chat channel, or start blogging about it. You’ll quickly be seen as the expert, no title needed.


Change your tone.

If your 2 p.m. coffee run regularly includes a side of gossip and ranting about the boss and/or coworkers, challenge yourself to a week of keeping that negativity on lockdown. 


Take it a step further. Instead of grabbing your usual office buddy for a break, invite someone to join you who is outside of your immediate team or bring along the newest addition to the office. Not only will you grow your network, you’ll also strengthen your ability to connect with a range of different personalities, which is a critical leadership skill.


Become an in-house industry expert.

When you’re the boss, time spent managing personnel issues and other employee challenges can prevent you from easily staying on top of the cutting edge issues in your industry. Do management (and yourself) a favor by being the person who is known for staying current on important trends in related industries, general business and leadership topics. Subscribe to industry journals, and set up Google news alerts for any topics related to your job that you know will keep you well informed. Bonus points for finding something new and newsworthy and sharing it with your team!


Tackle a project.

Your team likely has a goal or something on a to-do list that just keeps slipping. This is your time to shine! Raise your hand and offer to be the one who organizes the troops and makes an effort to get the ball rolling. You’ll strengthen your project management skills and show your teammates that you’re willing to tackle any challenge. 


Leading when you’re not the boss is as simple as making a choice to reach out to others and finding ways you can add value to your company. Don’t wait for the “boss” title to make a difference to those around you. 

Last Updated: June 7, 2016
About the author

    Alexandra Hoeflicker

    Alex is a Tucson-raised, Austin-based brunch aficionado. She enjoys a solid cup of coffee and browsing used record stores.