Leading Without Authority

Why Leading Without Authority is Easier Than You Think

If there’s one profession in which people are expected to lead without authority, it’s Human Resources. We have clients, not unlike many other professions, however, our clients are our colleagues, and sometimes people more senior to us within the organization. HR professionals have a hand in changing culture and enhancing the employee experience for leaders and individual contributors. Above all, we are expected to be the standard for professional behaviour at work.

Last week I spoke about taking advantage of the opportunities to put ourselves out there and get noticed by senior leaders. Today’s post will build on that because any good HR Business Partner knows that it’s not enough to impress senior people. In our work, we have to work with others across the HR team and other departments in order to fulfil our mandate. We have Centre of Excellence partners, finance partners, legal partners, administrative partners, and others across the company that we have to work with and negotiate with to get our jobs done.

A big part of leading without authority is influencing skills. How do you influence people when they absolutely do not need to listen to you? More importantly, how do you influence people to act in a certain way, or do things a certain way, when you have no authority over them? It’s actually more straightforward than you think.

An Art Form

I’m not minimizing the efforts of really good HR Business Partners. Influencing and leading without authority is an art. And like any art form, it requires practice and patience. Above all, it requires a genuine desire to create an outcome that’s pleasing to the artist and the receiver. So, this blog post is not about coercing people to do things they wouldn’t do. This is about showing people that another way is a better way. Or simply showing them alternatives and guiding them to make the choice that makes most sense in the situation.

One thing to keep in mind as you read this: when you influence people or convince them to behave in a certain way, you will rarely, if ever, get any credit for bringing them along. So, you need to have a genuine desire to simply do the right thing when you start practicing this art. Influencing and leading without authority is not about personal glory or gain.

That said, you will get noticed and you will grow personally and professionally when you show that people are willing to follow you even when they don’t have to.

Peer Influence is More Effective than Authority Influence

I remember when I was in middle school, grade 6, I befriended a girl in my class. She was new to the school, and from the first day, we just clicked. She was a quiet sort of person, much like me, an introvert, and we had long philosophical discussions about life. As much as you could when you were 11 years old. She quickly became my best friend and over the course of grade 6, we were inseparable.

Perhaps what I liked most about her was that she was an honest, hard working, diligent person. She was kind and she was gentle-mannered, and she cared about other people. Not necessarily what they thought, but she genuinely wanted to please others, in a selfless manner. In other words, she was exactly the type of person I wanted to be.

Now, I should clarify that I grew up in Dubai. Dubai was back then much as it is now: a vain, showy sort of society. Girls in my class were all about the pretty hair, the best notebooks, the fanciest pens, the coolest lunch boxes (and the lunch that went into it). I didn’t go to a fancy private school, but it was private school nonetheless. And this girl was rich. To put it into perspective, I lived with my parents and sister in a very comfortable two-bedroom apartment in a nice building and neighbourhood. She lived in the same neighbourhood, in a fancier building, in a six-bedroom apartment. Yet, she was more down to earth and spiritual than anyone else I knew.

Up until that point, I never really studied for exams or tests. I paid attention in class but pretty much winged tests and exams landing squarely in the B zone. It was sheer laziness and boredom.

She showed me, not through her words, but through her actions, that being respectful of the education we were getting was our only job at age 11. My grades skyrocketed that year. My final report card was all As that year and I attribute that, not to my smarts, but to her ability to show me that hard work was not only not all that bad, but also our responsibility for the time, money and effort our parents and teachers were putting into our education.

Two points here: First, an eleven-year-old girl influenced me to study and subsequently get good grades without any authority, when my parents, who had full authority and power, could not. Two, while my parents praised me for my grades, they knew it was my friend’s company that helped lift me.

When you think of your own career, how much have people shown you, rather than told you what to do? When kids find themselves stealing or cheat, it’s not because someone told them to those things. It’s because that’s what they saw worked for other kids to avoid a negative situation or get something they wouldn’t have the legitimate way (in their minds anyway). So, if we use that power of peer influence for the betterment of our workplace, imagine what the organization would look like?

A Point on Selflessness

I couldn’t talk about influence and leadership without talking about selflessness. It’s the foundation that the entire art form rests upon.

The thing is, when you lead without authority, you’re not telling anyone to follow you. People gravitate towards you because they know, like and trust you. I followed my friend and studied with her because I wanted to spend time with her. I wanted to spend time with her because I liked and admired her. It’s really as simple as that.

When you lead without authority, most likely you don’t even know you’re doing it. You simply do and people follow. You’re not actively telling people to follow you and they’re under no obligation to follow. When someone does something that they’re not forced to, it’s because they believe in that thing. When they start believing in something, that’s when change really happens. And if you want change to happen in your organization or within a client group, that’s the place you need people to get to.

How to Lead Without Authority

 The cornerstone of leading effectively with or without authority is trust. Trust is a big word and a complex concept. It’s an elusive thing too, not really definable. Why are some people inherently trustworthy while others are not? Why do we get a “feeling” about someone’s trustworthiness before we even know them. When you’re building trust in a relationship (no matter what kind of relationship), there are a few things to expedite the process:

  1. Be consistent

Have you even encountered a person who did something really nice for you one moment and then threw you under the bus the next? Would you trust that they would have your back? What about a person who was always late to a meeting? Could you trust them to be there for you in a time of crisis? Or what about the person who is super sweet to you one day, and then ignores you the next? Would you dread interacting with them because you wouldn’t know their mood that day?, The answer to all is a resounding no.

Trust is earned by being consistent. Period. Consistent in your behaviour, your attitude, and your actions. It’s as simple as that.

  1. Be credible

Have you ever met a person who told tall tales of how wonderful they were and how they climbed every obstacle and never seemed to mess up at all? Did you tend to be skeptical of their stories because you were never quite sure if they were true? Credibility is being truthful and genuine in everything you do. If you accomplished something great, you’ll gain people’s trust faster if you also tell them what went wrong. You’ll gain credibility faster when you show a vulnerability. Because no one is ever perfect. And people who appear to be perfect are not trustworthy.

Trust is earned by being credible. In your actions, in your words, and in the stories you tell about your life.

  1. Be reliable

If there’s one word that seems to be synonymous with trust, it’s reliability. Do you do what you say you are going to do it and by the time you say you are going to do it? Nothing diminishes trust like telling someone that you’re going to deliver by Friday and then not delivering by Friday. Now, things happen and sometimes we genuinely can’t deliver by Friday because of unforeseen circumstances. But if those “unforeseen circumstances” seem to always come up when we’re up against a deadline, then we’re not reliably accounting for those circumstances. People can’t trust us if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

Reliability and trust are synonymous. If you make a mistake, learn from that mistake and do better next time so that people can count on you. No one trusts someone who can’t be counted on.

Trust is the cornerstone of leading without authority. You can’t lead anyone without gaining their trust first. And trust is gained easier than most people think. Focus on these three areas and practice mindful selflessness. You’ll see people gravitate towards you and you’ll have the added benefit of seeing people succeed.


Beginning next week, we are starting a new format to the blog. We will have a monthly theme and weekly blog posts to focus each week on 1)managing the function, 2)working with the business on the function, 3)elevating your career with the function, and 4)self care while performing the function. I’ll also sprinkle in some personal experiences as I run my consulting practice.

 April’s theme: Recruitment


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