Leading the Leaderless

Traditional business structures are shifting (albeit at a snail’s pace… but I digress, that’s another article entirely). Organizations are becoming increasingly flat, chains of command blurred, and reporting, collaboration and operational structures more dynamic and ad-hoc. As organizations strive to develop more open and creative working environments, the traditional shackles of hierarchical management are being loosened and are changing the way that we work.
This is a great thing, right? Creativity is up, problem-solving is being done with new perspectives, employees are happier and you don’t have to pay as many pointless middle-managers ridiculous sums of money to play corporate babysitter. However, in some scenarios, the absence of leadership can be exceptionally trying and erect sizeable walls to productivity.
There are countless situations in which we find ourselves in groups without formal leadership: cross-functional work teams, volunteering, non-profits, academic groups and even friendship circles. While creativity and collaboration may improve without a formal leader present, sometimes you simply need to get shit done. Leadership isn’t a bad thing – when done with empathy, fairness and a view to greater objectives, it can help improve productivity while still keeping everyone happy. We’ve all been in a two-hour long meeting with peers that has resulted in no good ideas and no action items; sometimes you just need someone to step up and take charge.
So in the increasing absence of formal leadership, how can you take control of a group without the authority to do so? Leading peers is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do (even moreso than leading up, since we all know how easy it is to manipulate your boss) because it requires for individuals to swallow their pride and accept the authority of another individual. The most important thing you can do in any group situation when jockeying for power is to read the people around you. Ultimately, it will be the personalities (and egos) of those in the group that determine how best to take leadership of a group.
That said, here are eight tactics to try and some words of caution when you do so.
Lead by Example: A classic tale of “put up or shut up,” this tactic is more passive and employed simply by setting the tone of what needs to get done. People will inherently flock to your hard work, dedication and energy. Think of yourself as the crazy sergeant who leads the charge over the hill into a hail of gunfire.
Caution: You may end up doing all the work.
The Visionary: People want to be inspired and if you can create a vision behind which a group can rally, you can take control as their guiding foreseer. You must be bold, charismatic, inspired and unwavering in your belief of the path you set forth. Rising above mere leadership, your group must believe that you have patent on an ability to create and execute on the perfect plan.
Caution: There is a chance that you will inspire and start a cult. (If this is your thing,check out this article)
Claim It: A bold and risky maneuver, you can identify the challenges of the current state of ambiguous leadership and offer to step up for the betterment of the group. Much like claiming “dibs” this leadership tactic is flimsily held together merely by the fact that you identified the issue and got there first.
Caution: By formalizing the position you have become the future scapegoat.
Resident Expert: By claiming knowledge of a situation, technology, process or anything else relevant to the group’s task at hand, you immediately position yourself as a voice of expertise in the group whose knowledge is not to be challenged. Somehow, that small bit of knowledge has turned you into an authority on everything and anything pertaining to the subject and whether you like it or not, you’re in charge.
Caution: You’d better know what you’re talking about.
Default: The two greatest words in the English language. If you ever find yourself among a group of exceptionally passive peers, you won’t need to rally leadership support so much as simply be the first one to open their mouth.
Caution: Be prepared for hours of micro-managing hopeless drones.
Manipulate: If you are dead-set on leading a group, then don’t let morality get in your way; lie, cheat, blackmail and force your way into a position of sullied power. Hold whatever personal power you can over individuals and use intimidation and mob tactics to keep the others under thumb. For inspiration, catch up on your viewing of Game of Thrones.
Caution: Your soul could be damned to hell for all eternity.
‘First Mate’: A tactic that could be tied to any of those above, this is an approach for keeping would-be leaders in check. Those who grow jealous of your authority and power can be kept close by giving them false co/sub leadership titles. These positions, pulled out of thin air, may be all the responsibility and distraction needed to keep your challengers at bay.
Caution: Mutiny. That is all.
Follow: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Sometimes it is crucial to realize when there is a bigger dog in the room who simply wants it more. For the benefit of the group and your sanity, the best thing you can do is step back and let someone else take the reins.
Caution: That other guy could be a real moron.
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