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Can You Have Leadership Without Authority?

By Caitlin Leishman on July, 17 2017
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Caitlin Leishman

As management structures change, so does the definition of a leadership role.

Previously, leadership and authority used to always coexist, but more and more people are being assigned to leadership roles without having positional authority, which is the authority that comes from title, rank, and status.

In an organization with a traditional hierarchy, leaders are those that have been at the organization the longest, and risen to a managing role. Today, more and more businesses are turning to career lattices instead of ladders, and working towards creating collaborative teams that include people from various positional levels and departments. 

Organizations are realizing that people with positional authority aren’t always the best to lead in every situation, or on every project.

For example, a study done by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found that many errors by flight captains were not challenged or corrected by crew members with less positional authority. One airline decided to test their crews via flight simulators, having the captains make fatal mistakes at a critical moment.

The results of the experiment showed that 25% of the flights would have crashed because no one would have questioned the position of the one with the highest positional authority, the plane’s captain[1]. Although this is an extreme example, there are other cases in which people without high positional authority may simply have more experience on a certain topic, have a useful skill, or an important connection that may make them better suited to lead a team or project.

Leadership without authority, although more challenging, is far from impossible. Today’s most effective leaders are using new techniques to impact, influence, and inspire others. Part of developing loyalty as a new leader means that people must place value in you as an individual, and feel like they’re making an equal contribution to the team.

Here are some of the skills that the next generation of leaders is using to succeed:


Body language: While traditional leaders use body language to project strength and authority, nowadays body language that projects inclusion and warmth is becoming more valued. Warm body language includes genuine smiles, open postures, positive eye contact, and mirroring.

Mirroring is when you adjust your body language to match the person/people you are dealing with. The most important thing you can do is face people and give them your full attention when they are speaking.


Listening with empathy: One of the best ways to foster effective communication is to listen with understanding and try to see an idea through the eyes of another person. A study by Development Dimensions International revealed that empathy is at the top of the list of skills with the highest impact on leadership performance.

According to another study by the University of Michigan, empathy levels among college students have been declining over the past few decades, which means new generations of your workforce might benefit from training in empathetic listening.


Positivity: Positive and negative emotions are contagious, but in business the power of emotion is often ignored or downplayed. People want to believe they act solely from logic and reason, and leaders tend to present information in a way that will help team members make logical decisions.

As a leader, you can in fact better influence your team by understanding the role of emotion in driving performance. Positive emotions like optimism and gratitude boost learning and motivation, while stress and fear cause a decrease.


Choosing the right people: It’s important to have people on your team who want to see your organization grow, and your project succeed.

If someone seems to be rejecting your leadership, it could be because they aren’t invested in the work itself, or don’t have the competencies required to be part of a team.


Know your style: Everyone has their own leadership style, and their own corresponding competencies. It’s important to realize that your behavior doesn’t just represent you, but your team and organization as a whole.

A great way to take stock of your leadership style is to evaluate how you respond when things don’t go the way you planned.

A leader who takes care of their team, and responds calmly and understandingly in adverse situations will foster more loyalty from their subordinates.


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