A leader isn't made by their title

How to set the bar in your organization

by Bruce Tulgan, founder, CEO, RainmakerThinking, Inc. | September 2016 Footnote

You want to be a leader in your firm. There's just one problem: you are not the boss. In fact, you have no official supervisory responsibility over anybody. What do you do? How can you exercise meaningful leadership without the official title?


The answer: If you do not have authority, then your only option is to use influence.

The key to effectively gaining and using influence is being taken seriously by serious people. And, if you want serious people to take you seriously, then you must conduct yourself in the manner of a serious person.

Sounds simple enough? Take a few minutes to read through these steps and carefully evaluate if you are being an effective leader despite your organizational title.

Step No. 1: Make sure you understand exactly where you fit in the organization.

No matter who you are, what you want to achieve or how you want to behave, your role in any work situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with you. Every situation has a context that limits the possibilities and scope of your potential role. What is your appropriate role in relation to the other people in the group? What is your appropriate role in relation to the organization's mission? What expectations and hopes are reasonable for you to have?

Once you really understand your role in any work context, then your No. 1 responsibility is to play that role to the absolute best of your ability.

Step No. 2: Bring your best self to work every day.

Attitude and effort matter -- a lot. No matter how narrow or mundane you might find your current role, play that role to the max. Bring your very best effort and attitude to work every day.

Before you can do your best at your job, you need to be at your best. That means you need to take good care of yourself both inside and outside of work. Do this quick "best-self reality check:"

  • Are you taking good care of your mind? What are the main sources of input for your mind right now? How can you expose your mind to a greater variety of input?
  • Are you taking good care of your body? When do you sleep? What do you eat and drink? How do you exercise?
  • Are you taking good care of your spirits? What do you believe in? What is your purpose? What is your attitude? How can you improve your attitude?

Being at your best also means being consistently high quality, high integrity and adaptable:

  • Be high quality. Always hold yourself to a high standard. Double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check. And then, don't be paralyzed -- go for it.
  • Be full of integrity. Don't get involved in unethical dealings, no matter how small. Break your back to deliver when people are counting on you. Help others, even when nobody is there to give you credit. Intervene when others are being treated unfairly, and don't be afraid to speak up if you believe in something.
  • Be adaptable. Be one of the few people who is willing to do whatever is needed, whenever it's needed. Take on a new challenge, even if it is not "your job" to do so. And above all, no complaining.

Step No. 3: Be a great workplace resident.

Every workplace is different, but there are some solid standards of conduct by which you can almost never go wrong.

  • Under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Don't badmouth others.
  • Keep your word.
  • Keep confidences.
  • Be an accurate source of information.
  • Don't keep other people waiting.
  • Be a problem solver.

Step No. 4: Assess your productivity, your work quality and your behavior on a regular basis.

Rigorous self-evaluation is the beginning, middle and end of self-management and self-improvement. Be honest with yourself and make a commitment to constant, rigorous self-evaluation.

Continuously ask yourself these questions:

  • Productivity: What can I do to get more work done? Should I revisit my priorities or focus my time better?
  • Quality: Am I working within the guidelines and specifications for my tasks and responsibilities? Do I need to elevate my work product?
  • Behavior: What can I do to be a better workplace citizen? Are there substandard behaviors I should eliminate or superstar behaviors I should add? How can I take more initiative?

Self-evaluation is an engine of self-improvement only if you use the information you've learned from it. Start on one small goal at a time -- the smaller the better. Once you meet that goal, take another small step. It's a never-ending process because there is always room to improve.

Step No. 5: Practice the art of interpersonal relations.

Notice that steps 1-4 are all about managing yourself. Once you have mastered self-management, then -- and only then -- will you have the chance to exercise real influence by practicing the art of interpersonal relations.

  • Approach every relationship by focusing on what you have to offer the other person.
  • Be a model of trust. Be accountable for everything you say and do.
  • Remove your ego. Take your commitments and responsibilities seriously. Extend personal vulnerability, but never undermine your own credibility.
  • Listen carefully. Never interrupt or let your mind wander when others are speaking.
  • Empathize. Always try to imagine yourself in the other person's position, then behave in a way that you would appreciate under the same circumstances.
  • Exhibit respect and kindness. If you think the other person is pressed for time, be brief. If you think something might be wrong, ask if there is anything you can do to help. Never hesitate to share a compliment.
  • Speak up and make yourself understood. Always take a quiet moment and clarify, for yourself, what really is on your mind. If it's something that ought to be shared, think about the most effective words and actions to get your message across.
  • Be a motivator. Visualize positive results. Be enthusiastic and share your positive vision. Never speak of a problem unless you have thought of at least one potential solution.
  • Celebrate the success of others. Always give people credit for their achievements, no matter how small.

If you want to be a leader in your firm long before you ever have an official leadership position or title, first manage yourself so that serious people will take you seriously. Then you will have the stature to practice interpersonal relations in a meaningful way. There is no short cut, but that is the way to gain real influence, which is the sort of power that never becomes obsolete and nobody can take away from you.

It doesn't end when you get the title

Congratulations! You followed the steps and became the boss. But your work isn't over. As a manager, you should encourage your employees to follow these same steps. These work habits might seem like a matter of personal style or preference, but, in fact, there are strong business reasons for these habits. Tell your staff that how they present and conduct themselves at work has a big impact on their professional reputation. Not following good work habits with consistency may give some managers second thoughts about entrusting them with important work.

If you want to be taken seriously in the workplace, your best bet is to learn best practices and develop good work habits. People will perceive you as being more professional. That will be very much to your benefit, both here and anywhere else you work.

Bruce Tulgan is founder and CEO of the workplace research and consulting firm, RainmakerThinking, Inc. He has been conducting workplace research for 23 years, is the author of more than 20 books, and has worked with hundreds of different organizations across multiple industries. You may reach him at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.