Being a Leader in a Non-Leadership Role

The presence of “manager” or “director” in your title does not make you a leader. Being a leader is not about officially holding the power to make a decision, supervising others while they do the grunt work, or making the most money. Leadership is a skill, not a role. Leadership is the ability to connect with those around you and shepherd a team toward a successful outcome, to see the bigger picture, and to do what’s right—not what’s easy. You don’t need a specific title to do that.

What makes for a strong leader in a non-leadership post? The following behaviors can be performed from any function:

Stay positive but seek out problems.

Attitude is everything. Maintaining a positive attitude through the good, the bad, and the ugly affects everyone around you. Positivity alone can drive team performance and can greatly improve the results a team delivers.

But positivity alone isn’t enough to be a leader. A leadership mentality is a deep internal hunger to make a difference. Individuals with a leadership mentality see an opportunity in every problem and jump in to lend a hand. They’re focused on the outcome and work selflessly to make it happen. To develop a leadership mentality, make it habit in your day-to-day work to seek out teammates’ impediments. When you see a problem being neglected or overlooked by others, step in to resolve it no matter who’s responsible for it, or how big or small the impact may be.

Lead by example.

Set a pace for others to follow. A strong leader is never afraid to walk the talk and set a standard of performance for others to aim for—and exceed.

Setting an example also applies to how you react to wins and losses. Always remain humble! Bragging or putting others down are behaviors you don’t want others to replicate. Rather, encourage team members to make the trip with you and celebrate them when they rise to a challenge, regardless of the outcome.

Set and exceed expectations.

Never be afraid to set the expectations for a task at hand, even if no one is asking for them. Push back on expectations if you don’t agree with them. Managing expectations shows your ability to see the big picture, that you understand the outside forces and complexities of even simple activities, and that you want to make sure everyone is aligned. Then, of course, blow those expectations out of the water.

I see a fundamental difference between “going above and beyond” vs “under-promising and over-delivering.” The latter is the mantra of the mediocre. Exceeding expectations doesn’t mean you under-promised. The expectations we set define a reasonable baseline we commit to deliver. Everything else is whipped cream on top! A top performer will always try to go above and beyond what is expected of them, but a strong leader will take it a step further and set the expectations for themselves.

Understand, communicate, and challenge the big picture.

When presented with a new task, it’s critical to understand the big picture around the work you’re doing. Why are you doing it? What’s the benefit? What does the end result look like? Having a grasp on the full context will help ensure you’re focusing on the activities that will deliver the most value to the organization. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the minor steps and lose sight of the larger goal.

Next, communicate the big picture to others. Check in with others to help them interpret how their individual contributions create the whole. Help the team stay oriented to outcomes rather than details.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to push back on the big picture or the tasks leading up to it. If you think someone else’s view of the big picture is distorted, or the steps you’re taking to get there could be improved upon, speak up. Give your honest feedback instead of blindly agreeing with decisions. This will either drive positive change within the organization or fortify the existing strategy. Respectfully challenge assumptions and approaches.

Listen more, then talk.

Listening is the most important part of being a good communicator and being a good communicator is integral to being a leader. But that doesn’t mean “listen more, talk less” is always the right advice. There’s nothing wrong with talking a lot when you have valuable things to say. Listening and talking are both necessary. Improve on both.

Listen first and let others share their ideas and opinions. This upfront listening will allow you to feel out the room, let ideas flow, and create a collaborative environment. Avoid dominating a conversation by talking first. You may even hear ideas that make you forget about your own, or that complement your original position. When the conversation is flowing, it can be tough to remind yourself to be a better listener, so taking the time to do it upfront can greatly improve your ability to hear others.


You might not have a team of direct reports on the org chart, but you’re always in a position to step into a leadership role. Never let your title interfere with your potential.

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Dan Hopmans

Dan is a Certified Associate Project Manager. His responsibilities at Abraic include onsite coordination, facilitation, project assessment and delivery, operations, and more.

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