How to Lead If You’re Not in Charge

The Step-By-Step Guide for Every Rising Leader.

Jake Daghe
Oct 10 · 7 min read
Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash

The greatest myth in leadership is thinking that you cannot lead until you are in charge. In reality, having a position of authority or an elevated title has very little to do with leadership. It is possible to be a great leader and never run an organization. Likewise, it is very possible to run an organization and be a terrible leader.

If you want to dispell the myth of associating leadership with a given title, you must learn how to lead when you are not in charge. It is possible, but it requires reevaluating and reframing your perspective to see the opportunities that are in front of you instead of only focusing on the opportunities that are ahead of you.

This is exactly what John C. Houbolt did when he changed the way the Apollo Project thought about landing on the moon. Arguably the greatest scientific accomplishment of the 20th century was successful in large part due to the work and leadership of a man who was nowhere close to being in charge.

If you aspire to be a leader, it’s time to move past the idea of waiting for a title or position to give you authority. It’s time to realize that leadership is more about who you are than what exactly you are doing. It’s time to take the necessary steps to begin leading even when you’re not in charge.

Overcome Passivity (Lead You)

“Becoming a leader is synonomous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.
- Warren Bennis

If you aspire to be a leader, you must focus on leading yourself before you are ever able to lead others. A leader who is unwilling to lead themselves will routinely fail to capture the conviction of those he or she is trying to lead.

Too many young people aspiring to be leaders look towards a position of influence as the catalyst for growth. Leadership is not uncovered as much as it is built. It is not the result of a promotion, but the gathering of experiences until a critical mass is reached, leading to an overflow of expertise. That expertise is leadership.

In order to lead yourself, you must overcome passivity. When you place too much value on a position to give you leadership, it is easy to subconsciously delay your feelings of responsibility until such a time when you reach that position. When in fact, understanding that you have a responsibility now, to lead yourself, is one of the most important steps any aspiring leader can take.

You will only reject passivity to the level you realize your current responsibility. If you place the utmost value on what you are doing right now, your desire to push past passivity will be insatiable. And when your desire to lead yourself becomes insatiable, the possibilities in front of you become unlimited.

There is nothing a young leader with curiosity, motivation, and an indomitable will cannot do. So, before you ever reach a title or position of authority, put into motion the practice of leading yourself.

Think Critically

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
- Aristotle

As you begin to lead yourself, you will quickly find yourself asking more questions about your surroundings. Great leaders harness a helpful curiosity in order to expose gaps of weakness and point people towards solutions. Yet, one of the greatest dangers for men and women aspiring to be leaders is in the tone by which these questions are asked.

There is a massive difference between thinking critically and being critical. It is becoming more common to attribute the skill of leadership to those who have the loudest voices and often, the loudest voices are found in those who are expressing dissent or disagreement with a current person, process, or platform.

It is easy to be disagreeable. It is much harder to disagree in a way that leads to unity. The path to great leadership is one of curiosity and thinking critically, yet too many aspiring leaders mistake the ability to think critically with the necessity to be critical.

‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.

Thinking critically has nothing to do with your position in an organizational chart. You do not have to be in charge to observe, listen, analyze, and ask great questions. Developing this skill when you don’t have the title of authority is one of the best goals for aspiring leaders. The ability to be objective as you think critically will set you apart from those who settle for the much easier and more common practice of being critical.

Anyone can see problems and be a critic. Few can see problems and think critically on how to improve and adjust towards excellence.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Collect and Connect

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.
- Vernon Howard

It is possible to lead when you are not in charge. This journey to leadership begins by committing to leading yourself. When you do this, you begin to practice a positive curiosity that allows you to think critically without being critical. These first two steps are necessary for good leadership, but the third step in this process is what truly sets apart those who will become leaders from those who will only ever aspire to leadership.

Leading yourself is an internal practice. You are the biggest beneficiary of this habit. Thinking critically begins to influence those around you through the questions you propose, however, the practice of collecting and connecting truly begins to shift you away from individual leadership and more towards collaborative leadership.

Leadership is rooted in the idea of collection. As you grow, you begin to collect elements of leadership such as information, experiences, wisdom, lessons learned, and feedback, tips. You collect these elements through reading, conversations, experiments, and trials. While the skill of collection is necessary, on its own it will not foster the ability to lead when your not in charge. Collection must be partnered with connection.

Richard Branson has a mantra that runs through his companies that aligns with this idea of collection and connection.

“The mantra for moving towards success is A-B-C-D. It stands for “Always Be Connecting Dots.”

Leading when you are not in charge means that you have strengthened the skill of gathering great information and connecting the pieces together in a way that adds value and leads others towards accomplishing a shared goal. A simple example of this would be reading ten leadership books, summarizing the main 3 take-aways from each book. This is the collecting phase. The connecting phase would be distilling those takeaways down into 2 action items that you can put into practice personally and professionally in ways that are independent of your title or position.

This is how you lead when you are not in charge. You focus on collecting and connecting wherever and whenever possible.

Accept Responsibility (Not Credit)

“The price of greatness is responsibility.
- Winston Churchill

The last step in the process of leading when you are not in charge is to come to a wise understanding of the difference between accepting responsibility and accepting credit.

The goal of good leadership is not to gain credit. If you are focused primarily on gaining the credit for the work you are apart of, you will likely wait to lead until you have the title that determines where credit is placed.

While you want to be recognized for the work that you are doing and the impact you are having, leading when you are not in charge means that you value the responsibility of leadership more than the recognition.

Valuing the responsibility of leadership means eliminating excuses and owning your involvement in the results, good, bad, or indifferent. Responsibility is weighty, and no one likes to shoulder burdens that could easily be passed off on someone else. It takes a great leader to say, “the buck stops here” and to put into practice the reliability and character found in taking responsibility.

Leading when you are not in charge means that you take responsibility for the actions you control and the actions you do not. Abraham Lincoln said, “you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Decide today to embrace responsibility and truly become a leader, regardless of if you are officially in charge or not.

The Results of Leading When You’re Not In Charge

Wernher von Braun was the chief scientist and engineer for NASA when President John F. Kennedy made the announcement that by the end of the 1960’s, the United States would put a man on the moon.

Von Braun had the right title and everyone knew that he was in charge. He was responsible for engineering the Saturn V, which was the premier rocket used by NASA in the 1960’s. When President Kennedy issued his challenge, people looked to von Braun to figure out how to accomplish this mission.

Yet, the way that NASA and the United States ultimately accomplished this mission was not on the designs and ingenuity of Wernher von Braun. Rather, it was on the leadership of an engineer who worked at Langely and had no authority to be working on the moon landing project.

John Houbolt, convinced of the idea of a lunar orbit rendezvous which was eventually used by the Apollo 11 crew to become the first people ever to walk on the moon, was a leader even though he was not officially in charge.

Houbolt lead himself by overcoming passivity, he thought critically, he collected hundreds and thousands of studies and details and connected the dots in ways no one had before. Then he took responsibility, mailing his ideas and plans straight to NASA headquarters.

John Houbolt led when he wasn’t in charge and it changed the trajectory of humanity. How will your leadership change the lives of those around you?


Discover tomorrow’s bestsellers today. You'll say you knew them when.

Thanks to George J. Ziogas, Niklas Göke, and Nicole Akers

Jake Daghe

Written by

Creative Engineer | Executive Assistant + Navigator at an ATL Non-Profit. | I’m a fan of poetry, popcorn, and a great puzzle.


Discover tomorrow’s bestsellers today. You'll say you knew them when.

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