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Leading Without a Title

May 13, 2020 in

Author: Drew Morgan

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

Consider the following scenario. You are on a call with your team led by your supervisor as you discuss ideas for an upcoming project. Your colleague, who has been known to dominate these types of calls, jumps in and describes an idea about how to approach the project. From your vantage point, you are fairly certain that the plan will not work, however, your supervisor, blind to the obstacles you are aware of, seems excited and signs off on the idea. Now you start to question yourself, thinking “I’m sure [your colleague] is right. Besides, they have way more experience than I do. I’m sure it will work out.” As the project progresses it becomes readily apparent that the plan is going to fall through, and you kick yourself for not trusting your initial instinct. In that way, you had missed an opportunity to lead.

Leaders are typically thought of as those at the top of the organizational hierarchy. In this view, the higher up on the hierarchy the more leadership bestowed. This begs the question, what are the prerequisites to become a leader? Does one necessarily need a high-ranking title, corner office, and numerous people under them to be a leader? Does one become a leader when starting a prestigious role or might they have been a leader all-along, only now with the title and formal authority to boot?

As stated by John Quincy Adams in the opening quotation, leadership is much more than a title or role. Leadership is not reserved for those atop the hierarchy– it is necessary from all levels in an organization. However, leading from a position with no formal or inherent authority can be a difficult. Looking back at the story that we opened with, challenging your colleague in front of everyone might have felt uncomfortable or awkward; however, ‘Leading without a title’ is often about navigating these blurry lines about when to speak your mind and when to fall in line. Without the formal authority to back up your words, you risk alienating yourself from your colleagues and breaking down trust. On the flip side, by not speaking up you are not only holding out on your organization, but you are cheating yourself from an opportunity to be a leader.

The path can be murky, but there are some guiding principles to help you navigate the challenge.

Lead Yourself First

No matter the level, we tend follow those we respect — those that seem put-together, self-assured, and driven. These individuals have first and foremost developed the skills necessary to lead themselves.

Self-leadership can be defined as managing and being purposeful with your thoughts, feelings, and actions to obtain your goals.1 One of the foundational skills necessary to lead the self is self-awareness. Without self-awareness, self-leadership is near impossible due to the lack of anchors and goal posts that drive behavior. The work necessary to create self-awareness is no easy task. It involves deep reflection on your cognitive and emotional tendencies, motivations, and aspirations. HigherEchelon’s executive coaching philosophy is centered around developing self-awareness to lead oneself, which focuses on three key concepts:

  1. Develop your Why
    • What is your purpose, your cause, your beliefs? As Simon Sinek says, “why do you get up in the morning and why should anybody care?” Answering these questions and knowing your why in relation to your role is a critical first step in one’s leadership development.
  2. Know your core values
    • What are those concepts that are most define who you are? Compassion, loyalty, enthusiasm, productivity? Knowing your underlying core values is vital as they drive much of our thoughts and actions.
  3. Develop a leadership philosophy
    • “A philosophy is the ‘guiding or underlying principles that drive the actions of yourself and your team” – John Wooden. Building on your core values, create a philosophy for how you want to lead others.

Develop the Mental and Emotional Skills Necessary for High Performance

Through executive coaching or the Resilient and Adaptable Leader program, HigherEchelon can provide the mirror needed for self-awareness, the mental and emotional skills necessary for high performance, and the steps to create a speak-up culture in your workplace.

Through this process you can become a leader of yourself and eventually a leader in your field. Visit HigherEchelon’s human capital page for more information about individual coaching that can help you develop self-awareness, cultivate trust from those around you, and ultimately become a leader no matter your title.

Listen to Coaching Through Stories

HigherEchelon released a brand new podcast this year about leadership and high performance. Coaching Through Stories is led by Dr. Eric Bean who spends this season uncovering leadership lessons contained in stories from experienced professionals. This podcast is a great first step on your leadership development journey and will give you an opportunity to learn from university presidents, numerous CEOs, a retired Navy Seal and many more. Listen on our website or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify today.


  1. Bryant, A. & Kazan, A. (2012). Self-leadership: how to become a more successful, efficient, and effective leader from the inside out. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Professional.